Silencing opinion

It is an attack on the right to freedom of expression.

The arrest of two girls in Thane over a Facebook posting is reason for grave concern. The posting merely questioned Mumbai’s shutdown for the funeral of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. It was neither incendiary nor offensive. Yet the girls were arrested on charges filed by local Shiv Sena politicians under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (‘outraging religious feelings of any class’) and Section 66A of the IT Act (‘sending offensive messages through communication service, etc.’). The incident lays bare yet again the extreme intolerance of Shiv Sainiks. Mere questioning of their decision to shutdown Mumbai brought out the beast in them. If the Facebook posting irked them, they could have explained their decision in a counter-post. Instead, they resorted to intimidation, twisted the arms of the local police and had the girls arrested. They also went on to vandalise the clinic of an uncle of one of the girls. As reprehensible was the police’s capitulation to the Sainiks’ demand to arrest the girls on charges that were at best flimsy. The cops should have stood up to defend the girls’ right to freedom of speech; instead, they facilitated the Sainiks’ bullying behaviour.

The ugly incident has prompted nation-wide outrage. The Maharashtra government has promised a probe and stern action against the Sainik goons as well as the cops. While this is important, it is not enough. There is an urgent need to address the root of the problem and this lies in Section 66A of the IT Act, which facilitates the silencing of criticism or articulation of ‘offensive’ opinion. It is not just the brazen misuse of this Act that should worry us but the fact that there are no checks and balances to prevent its misuse.
It’s not an isolated incident. Earlier this year, the West Bengal government arrested a professor for emailing a cartoon that poked fun of chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Last month, Karti Chidambaram, the son of finance minister P Chidambaram, had a businessman in Puducherry arrested for a Twitter posting that alleged that Karti had amassed wealth. Attempts at silencing opinion online by resorting to Section 66A are growing. Its provisions border on the ridiculous. Simply forwarding email that has what is deemed ‘offensive’ content or ‘liking’ a post can get you three years of jail. The government must get rid of this section’s sweeping provisions as it threatens our fundamental right to freedom of expression.

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