The Information Technology Act is “substantially the same” as laws instituted in other democracies like UK and the United States. What’s more, the language that is employed in various sections is exactly the same. Thus was the thrust of Kapil Sibal’s defense of Section 66A on NDTV last night.
The problem therefore lies not in the law but in its interpretation: “It’s very difficult to interpret the act on the ground. If you give this power to a sub-inspector of police, it is more than likely to be misused.” Sibal is hence “open” to putting in place guidelines that may prevent such abuse, whether it involves requiring a senior police officer to make the call or specifying the “circumstances” in which the law is applicable.
Now, there are many ways to tear apart Sibal’s logic. In Outlook, for example, Centre for Internet and Society’s Pranesh Prakash offers a detailed comparison with the UK law to show that: one, the UK courts have “read down” the “broad wording” of the law; two, they remain subject to EU human rights provisions; and three, UK law may well be unconstitutional under the Indian Constitution which offers stronger free speech protection.
Prakash’s legal arguments are worthy, meticulously argued and — in my view — somewhat moot.
Here’s why. Would discarding or amending Section 66A prevent the MNS goons from hauling Sunil Vishwakarma to the police station for a Facebook update? Would it prevent the Palghar policemen from filing a case against Shaheen and Rinu under pressure from the local Sainiks? Would that Jadhavpur professor then be immune from Trinamool harrassment for offending Mamata?
The answer is a big fat N-O.
Sibal is right. In India, the actual law is often irrelevant. Interpretation is all. And that interpretation in the real world of the police thana is determined not by legal standards but according to political power. So we have wonderfully progressive statutes on the book — as we do in the matter of women’s rights — that exist only in theory. More effective and employed are the draconian, colonial-era laws that are routinely used to punish the innocent. The IT act is just one of them.
In India, law is a weapon, a brahmastra of the powerful. The Sainiks were looking to make an example of someone, to exercise their political brawn. Shaheen and Rinu were convenient targets, and once selected, no law could have saved them from Shiv Sena wrath. The legal threshold for “offensive” content is irrelevant to NCP Kiran Pawaskar who put pressure on the police to arrest two Air India employees because they “shared lewd jokes about politicians, made derogatory comments against the Prime Minister and insulted the national flag in their posts.”
The goonda raj of politicians on the Internet merely reflects the reality offline. All that our online activity does is make the aam aadmi more visible, and therefore easier to target and victimise. They can’t put in spy cameras in every living room, but now they can monitor our conversations on Facebook and Twitter instead. In a sense, the Internet has allowed Big Brother into our homes
This is why comparisons to UK or US — which enjoy the rule of law — are irrelevant. And why upgrading the rank of the policeman — DCP or Inspector-general — making the call will not change the outcome in most cases. The political pressures on a DCP or IG are not different than on a lowly sub-inspector who takes action not because he doesn’t understand the law, but because he understands all too well the costs of non-compliance. As for putting a magistrate in charge, well, it was a magistrate who authorised the arrests of Shaheen and Rinu.
The only reason the policemen who arrested the girls may be punished is that the Congress party is in power in Maharashtra, as in not the Shiv Sena or the BJP. In Kolkata, for example, Mamata-di has no intention of taking action against those who arrested Ambikesh Mahapatra. ‘Raja chale bazaar to kutta bhonke hazaar‘ (the king walks to market, though a thousand dogs bark),” declared Didi when pressed on Justice Katju’s criticism of her anti-free speech stance.
It succinctly embodies the attitude of our leaders. Sibal may be saddened by the Palghar case but he was every bit as unruffled as Mamata when Ravi Srinivasan was arrested for an innocuous tweet accusing Karti Chidambaram of corruption. There are naturally no plans to drop the case against him. So it matters little if the IT act is amended or who is tasked with interpreting Section 66A. Who is punished, who receives justice, however delayed, is determined by politics not law.
In his NDTV interview, Sibal chided Barkha for bringing up “5-10 instances” of unlawful arrests when “there must be millions of [abusive] comments that have been put on the internet.” It’s a familiar Sibal strategy that he has employed in the past. Pressed on Ravi Srinivasan’s arrest, he told reporters, “There are 500 things by the name of Kapil Sibal and there are some things which I really don’t like. But I have not taken action.”
What he’s really saying is that each time we update, tweet or comment, we enter an online version of russian roulette, the kind you play with a gun. You never know which chamber is loaded, or when a politician is likely to pull the trigger. We survive not by the mercy of the law but at the whim of the powerful. In India, law isn’t an ass; it’s our dear netaji’s chaprasi.