Mumbai police arrested Monday a 21-year-old girl over a Facebook status update and her friend for clicking “Like” on that update. The arrest has created an uproar among Internet users in the country as it is seen as yet another onslaught on Internet speech in the world’s largest democracy.
In the status update, Shaheen Dhada, the girl accused, questioned the hard-line right-wing party Shiv Sena's call for a strike for the funeral of its founder-leader Bal Thackeray. On the post, where her friend Renu Srinivasan clicked “Like,” Dhada wrote:
“With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.”
Thackeray, the popular and controversial chief of the Shiv Sena, died Saturday after an extended illness. He was hailed as a radical right-wing Hindu nationalist in Maharashtra, but was also criticized and accused of inciting violence and divisiveness with anti-Muslim public speeches.
Dhada and Srinivasan were arrested under section 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code, according to which, people making statements that amount to “creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes” are liable to punishment. Both the girls are also charged with Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that seeks to punish online speech that is “grossly offensive or of menacing character.”
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The third law they have been charged with is Indian Penal Code 295A, according to which, insulting or outraging religious feelings is a crime. If proven offensive, the punishment for each count is three years' imprisonment.
Although, both Dhada and Srinivasan have been granted bail, the arrest has caused a social media outrage with netizens calling the move a "social media hijack by the powerful and the fundamentalists.” Social media sites have been flooded with tweets and posts condemning the arrest as a move to limit freedom of speech on the Internet.
"First Pondicherry businessman, now 21 year old Palghar girl. Next: all of us. Social media hijack by the powerful and the fundamentalists,” renowned journalist Gautam Chikermane tweeted.
"To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize ~ Voltaire,” Minister of State (Communications and IT) Milind Deora tweeted.
Pavan Duggal, Cyber law Expert and an advocate with the Supreme Court, also expressed similar views and opined that Indian IT laws need to be reviewed.
"This is high time for the government for the review of the law. The government should amend the IT Act so as to narrow down its provisions as some of these violate our constitutional right of free speech,” PTI quoted Duggal saying.
According to reports, there was also an attack on Dhada's uncles's orthopaedic hospital at Palghar by a mob of nearly 40 Shiv Sena activists. However, nobody was arrested in connection with the attack.
Following the arrest, the police in Maharashtra have come under fire. Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal accused them of mishandling the case and said that the government should have stepped in to control the situation.
"The Maharashtra police mishandled the law, it's illegal to arrest people like this," Sibal told CNN-IBN.
"Police officers who arrested the two girls in Mumbai should be immediately dismissed. That's minimum that the govt ought to do,” activist Arvind Kejriwal tweeted.
"The complaint was wrong, Magistrate was wrong, the police were equally wrong,” tweeted activist Kiran Bedi.
Press Council of India chief Markandey Katju urged chief minister Prithviraj Chavan in a letter to take action against police officials who arrested the girls.
“We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act since… it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime,” Katju, who is also a retired Supreme Court judge, wrote in his letter.
"Under Article 19(1)(a) of our constitution, freedom of speech is a guaranteed fundamental right. We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact 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," Katju pointed out.
India is the world’s largest democracy and a supporter of freedom of speech and expression. It was utter irony that two of its residents were sent behind bars for speaking out about inconveniences faced by millions of people when entire Mumbai was shut down as a tribute to Thackeray.