The most bizarre thing about the arrest of Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan on Monday over a Facebook post that questioned the wisdom of a bandh to mark Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's death is that no laws were actually violated by the post. In tone and in content, the post is remarkably restrained, particularly when compared to the rather more incendiary messages that are commonplace on social media platforms. Nor was it even halfways defamatory in the way that many rants on Twitter and Facebook have unfortunately come to be.
Yet, the Mumbai police appear to have cravenly capitulated in the face of some arm-twisting by a local Sena strongman and gone ahead to arrest the two young women on charges that seem laughable even given the extraordinarily sweeping, catch-all clauses of the Information Technology Act.
It is hard to see how Shaheen Dhada violated the two sections of the law under which she has been charged - Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code ("outraging religous feelings of any class") or even the draconian Section 66A of the IT Act ("sending offensive messages through communication service, etc.") - with her contemplative post, or what crimes Renu Srinivasan committed in merely 'liking' the post.
But it is a sign of the disquieting nature of the provision of the law, and the perverse manner in which it is being implemented, that there weren't adequate checks and balances to inhibit the wilful deployment of the law on such frivolous grounds. Ironically, the goons who actually wrecked the clinic of Dhada's uncle haven't been called to account.
If that is bad enough, it is doubly perverse for Kapil Sibal to claim in all innocence that he is "deeply saddened" by the arrest of the two young women and to insinuate that the IT Act, which he was instrumental in passing, was being misused on grounds of improper implementation.
The fact of it is that the IT Act that he fathered, and particularly the notorious Section 66A, was deliberately worded to give maximum potential for mischief. There have been far too many egregious instances of its misuse by discredited governments and politicians for Sibal to claim that these are random incidents of misuse of the law. Just last month, Finance Minister P Chidambaram's son Karti had a Puducherry businessmen and anti-corruption activist hauled up by the police for a Twitter post in which the businessman alleged that Karti had "amassed more wealth" than Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law.
It's important to get a sense of why the latest arrests take us further on the slippery slope towards curtailing free speech. Justice Markandeya Katju has repeatedly pointed to the egregious encroachment on the freedom of speech by this provision of law, and has been vocal in calling both politicians and policemen to account whenever the law is abused in this manner.
"It is absurd to say that protesting against the bandh hurts religious sentiments," Katju observed in a letter to the Maharashtra Chief Minister. "Under Article 19 of our Constitution, freedom of speech is guaranteed fundamental right. We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship."
If anything, Katju argued, "this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act since under Sections 341 and 342, it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime."
As Pranesh Prakash at the Centre for Internet and Society points out, in the context of Monday's arrests, "This should not be seen merely as 'social media regulation', but as a restriction on freedom of speech and expression by both the law and the police." Section 66A, he says, makes certain kinds of speech-activities (“causing annoyance”) illegal if communicated online, but legal if that same speech-activity is published in a newspaper.
This distinction is important, Prakash notes, since the mere fact that it was a Facebook status update "should not grant Shaheen Dhada any special immunity". If anything, it is the fact that her update is not punishable under Section 295 of the IPC or of Section 66A of the IT Act that should give her the immunity, he adds.
With each instance in which Section 66A of the IT Act is being invoked, the potential for mischief embedded in the law is being exposed. Monday's arrests - of two young women for crimes they did not even commit - are the most brazen instance of their abuse.
Of course, the perverse provision of law has been abused in the real world through selective and arbitrary invocation of the law. But the original sin lies in the law itself. It is the most potent threat to free speech online, and if the law isn't amended to throw out these perverse provisions, India can kiss goodbye to any lingering pretensions to being a democracy of any sort.
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Updated Date: Nov 20, 2012 09:18:52 IST