The department of information technology of the Indian government has granted sanction to prosecute Facebook, Google, Yahoo and 18 other websites on the premise that they are promoting "objectionable and offensive" material that harms national integration and creates enmity among classes.

The decision has been communicated to the Delhi High Court which warned these websites and portals that they would be banned in India if immediate steps were not taken to remove the "objectionable" material from their archives.

The case stems from a criminal suit filed by Vinay Ray, a Delhi-based journalist, claiming that some of these websites flaunt "blasphemous and derogatory" material which may even derail the communal harmony in the country. The companies, in turn, approached the Delhi High Court.

Despite the intervention of the court in the matter, there are many who believe that the government's immediate reaction granting approval to prosecute the sites is political rather than legal. In fact, the plan to crack down on social networking sites has been very much there on the political agenda of India's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the country's grand old party, the Indian National Congress. The country's communications minister Kapil Sibal, who was a top lawyer at India's supreme court, has been talking against uploading "insulting material" onto these sites for some time.

In early December 2011, Sibal spoke to the internet giants seeking removal of what he believed "unacceptable" images from their archives and also steps to screen content before it was posted online. But the companies refused to oblige. "We will evolve guidelines and mechanisms to deal with the issue. They will have to give us the data, where these images are being uploaded and who is doing it," Sibal told reporters then.

The country's political opposition then alleged that Sibal's demand stemmed from posts on social networking sites, especially on Facebook, ridiculing India's prime minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress heir apparent and Sonia's son Rahul Gandhi. Analysts also feel that India, which is said to be the largest democracy in the world, is going the autocratic way on the lines of what China and Iran did, by trying to stifle criticism against the Gandhi dynasty. The move has strong political overtones especially in an election year when five states, where the Congress has high political stakes, go to the polls.

Netizens' fury

The government's plan to ban social networking sites has sparked angry reactions on Twitter. Here are some of the responses.

internet is here 2 stay n if Indian courts ban Google n Facebook a 1000 new sites will spring up. India will have 2 b firewalled - Shekhar Kapur

In biggest democracy - No Freedom of Speech ? Instead of replying to the obligations you put a BAN. Shame on you... - Harish Mehta

But who decides what is objectionable? Whatever hapnd to #freedom of speech... - Shivani Garg

I wonder why #india is so desperate to ban #Facebook and #Google. Dont you realise your govt wont be able to work without the two. - Faizan lone

Ban on #facebook, #twitter ?? Either indian judiciary is influenced by congress govt. or #india is heading towards dictatorship.... - Dipesh Kadam

So now india would become china n ban twitter n Facebook this govt would ban anything that criticises it - Sandeep

Some of the morphed images posted recently on Facebook that ridicule India's political leadership have been added here: