Democracy is not your birthright, nor is it your fundamental right. It’s a right that the State and the police might occasionally like to bestow upon you.
--Ashok Mitra, commentator and politician
There are some things in life where half-way measures aren’t going to do. You have to go the whole hog.
Section 66A of India’s Information Technology Act, 2009, says:
Any person who sends by means of a computer resource or a communication device any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill-will, persistently makes by making use of such computer resource or a communication device, any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.
Whatever may have been the intentions behind introducing this Section in this new age of technology and communication, clearly, they have backfired.
Here’s why I think so.
On November 19, the Maharashtra police arrested a young woman, Shaheen Dhada, for making an innocuous comment after Mumbai strongman Bal Thackeray’s death, and another woman, Renu Srinivasan, for “liking” her comment.
(An aside: it doesn’t surprise me that the local cops acted on the complaint of one of Thackeray’s henchmen and one of the girls targeted, Shaheen, happens to be a Muslim. Long years of helpful recruitment to the police ranks have once again come in handy for the Shiv Sena).
Whatever the limited applause following the arrests, there was outrage among law-abiding circles in India at the audacity of the cops in booking the two young women.
Had the same yardsticks been applied, as were used to arrest Shaheen and Renu, many others would have been behind bars. In fact, police lock-ups across India, already overcrowded, would be even more pressed for space.
Eight days after the arrests, the state government finally took action, “suspending” two policemen in the case.
And then, the scene shifted to the Indian Supreme Court when a Delhi student, Shreya Singhal, filed a public interest case challenging the legal validity of Section 66A of the IT Act.
On November 30, the Supreme Court asked the government of Maharashtra to explain the application of Section 66A, with Chief Justice Altamas Kabir observing that the provision could be abused.
Arguing in the Court, Attorney General Goolam Vahanavati said:
The action taken by the [Maharashtra] police… is unjustifiable and indefensible but that doesn’t mean Section 66A is ultra vires.
The political class suddenly seems to have found a weapon in Section 66A to muzzle dissent. A lecturer is arrested in Kolkata for emailing to his friends a cartoon on [West Bangal] Mamata Banerjee, a businessman is arrested in Puducherry [South India] for tweeting against [Home Minister] P Chidambaram’s son, a cartoonist is arrested in Mumbai for his anti-corruption campaign. And then of course came the arrest of the two girls near Mumbai to placate Shiv Sena goons.
Mitta also pointed out that it was Parliament’s standing committee that recommended turning offences under Section 66A into cognizable ones, a suggestion that was accepted by the government and passed without discussion by both Houses of Parliament.