A 19-year-old in Maharashtra was questioned by the police for his comment on Facebook criticising Raj Thackeray.
This followed the earlier arrest of Shaheen Dhada for her Facebook post against a shutdown to mourn the death of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Another woman was arrested because she “liked” the post. Political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on sedition charges last October. In April, a professor in West Bengal was arrested for forwarding a spoof on the chief minister.
These incidents seem like stories that should be datelined Beijing, yet they represent a series of heavy-handed responses by local Indian officials to criticism. These officials are responding to the growing influence of social media in India.
While public protests led to the suspension of the police officials responsible for arresting the two young women, these incidents highlight the need for both legal and police reform in India. Laws are often vague when drafted on the assumption that they will be used judiciously. Yet authorities, particularly the police, remain susceptible to political pressure. Unless there is reform, free speech will continue to be under assault.
The colonial-era sedition law, which prohibits any words or representation that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection” toward the government, has often been abused. In a landmark ruling in 1962, the Supreme Court said criticism or comment on government action was protected under the fundamental freedoms of speech and expression unless there was incitement to violence. Yet cases in which there was no incitement continue to be filed, as was the case with Aseem Trivedi, whose offence was to criticise members of Parliament with a political cartoon. In 2010, activist-doctor Binayak Sen was sentenced to life in prison for sedition for defending the rights of members of the rebel Maoist movement, though he was never linked to any violence. In Tamil Nadu, the police has pursued thousands of sedition cases against farmers and fishermen protesting the construction of a new nuclear plant because of environmental concerns.
In all these cases, the Internet played its part in generating public opinion. As more and more Indians join the age of the Internet, hitting “enter” on a complaint or opinion can mobilise support from tens of thousands for online petitions, tweets, or liking something on Facebook. People on their smartphones and laptops can make an issue go viral in seconds.
After his arrest, Trivedi’s drawings travelled through the Internet, were posted on blogs, microblogs and social media. If they had continued down this ridiculous path, the Mumbai police would have to arrest for sedition the numerous folks in India who have shared his cartoons.
Another issue has been what might offend religious or ethnic sentiment. Social media is admittedly a difficult beast. Many use it anonymously to post abusive or hateful remarks. Others post content that presumably could incite communal or sectarian violence.
Yet the government can block peaceful criticism by asking social media companies to filter and remove “objectionable” content. Meanwhile, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act proscribes the sending of “grossly offensive” messages, or information that can cause annoyance, inconvenience, hatred or mislead the recipient. Yet what is objectionable or could cause annoyance is inherently subjective, putting both providers and users in the impossible position of trying to guess what officials and their constituencies won’t approve of.
The government has repeatedly said that the law should not be abused to silence critics, and has recently proposed changes to the application of the Internet regulations, so that any complaint on content will need approval of senior police officers. The Supreme Court is hearing a petition against section 66A. Charges were reversed in both Trivedi’s case and against Dhada and her friend.
Yet what is needed is a change in mindset. On many occasions when an interest group has demanded censorship, authorities have complied instead of defending constitutional privileges of free expression. Interest groups have blocked the screening of films, demanded deletion of cartoons from textbooks, called for book bans, all because they were “offended.”
Instead of responding in a paranoid manner, throwing people into jail and restricting civil society, the Indian government should invest in training its agencies to understand the brave new world of the Internet and even use it to promote its own views as part of a robust public debate. Officials could also learn to take satire and criticism more in stride, since it is the currency of modern political life.
Democracies not only tolerate criticism, but they encourage it, knowing that a vigorous debate on issues leads to better public policy. It does not jail its own people for the expression of peaceful political views. India can do better by providing better training to its police and protecting it from political pressures.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch