Civil Rights

In India, a Facebook and Free-Speech Debate


Shaheen Dhada (left) and a friend were charged for her critique of Bal Thackeray

AP Photo

Shaheen Dhada (left) and a friend were charged for her critique of Bal Thackeray

It started with a comment on Facebook (FB). On Nov. 17, Bal Thackeray, leader of the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena, died in Mumbai. The party’s members often clash with Muslims and are known for their street brawling. When their leader died, party stalwarts told Mumbai’s merchants to shut their stores the next day out of respect for Thackeray. At 7 p.m. on Nov. 18, Shaheen Dhada, a member of a prominent Muslim family in the town of Palghar, commented on her Facebook wall about Thackeray and whether he deserved such special treatment. “Today,” Dhada wrote in conclusion, “Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect!”

Only her Facebook friends immediately saw the message, but someone must have shown it to local members of Shiv Sena. Within 25 minutes a man phoned the 21-year-old and asked whether she thought what she posted was right. Shaken, she deleted the post and put up an apology.

It was too late. By 7:30 the police were at Dhada’s door, demanding she go with them to the station to submit a written apology. Later that night a mob smashed up the small hospital owned and run by her uncle, a well-known orthopedic surgeon. The police finally let her go at 2:30 a.m. but told her to return the next morning.

The police charged both Dhada and a friend who responded favorably to her post with insulting religious sentiments, and booked them under a little-known provision of India’s Information Technology Act, known as 66A. It allows for a three-year jail term for posting online content that is “grossly offensive or has menacing character” or causes “annoyance, inconvenience, hatred, danger, obstruction, insult.”

The incident received widespread attention. “The entire nation is furious at this apparently illegal arrest,” Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court judge and chairman of the Press Council of India, wrote to the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra, where Dhada lives. National TV channels interviewed the Dhada family. The police have yet to drop the charge.

The Dhada affair is part of a larger struggle between authorities and ordinary Indians about their rights online. In October, police took into custody Ravi Srinivasan, a businessman, after Karti Chidambaram, the son of Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, filed a complaint against Srinivasan for posting “defamatory/scurrilous tweets.” The tweet had compared Karti’s wealth to that of the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling Congress Party. Srinivasan was released on bail soon after the incident became widely publicized. In September, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested for sketches he posted online that attacked government corruption. Trivedi was accused of sedition but later released.

On Nov. 29, Shreya Singhal, a New Delhi native who recently graduated from the University of Bristol, filed a petition in India’s Supreme Court saying section 66A violates Indians’ constitutional right to freedom of speech. The petition included a reference to the Facebook arrests. Because the Dhada case was so hot, the court considered the petition immediately. On Nov. 30 the judges summoned Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati and asked him to explain the legality of using 66A to arrest someone for posting a comment on Facebook. The attorney general told the court that the government was tightening guidelines to check abuse of 66A. “The intent of the law was not wrong,” Vahanvati said, “but the arrests in Maharashtra were unwarranted.”

The bottom line: Indians are protesting a law that gives police ample authority to arrest those who say anything controversial online.

Narayan is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Mumbai.

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