The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Section 66A of the amended Indian IT Act, 2000 which allowed arrests for posting offensive content on social media sites. The controversial provision made posting offensive material on social networking sites an offence punishable by up to three years in jail. Students’ Federation of India cordially welcomes the Supreme Court judgement which writes off the Section 66A, and restores the freedom of expression in social media sites.
A batch of petitions have alleged that the section tramples upon the Fundamental Right to freedom of speech and expression, and asked that it be declared unconstitutional. On Tuesday, the court gave the government a week to clarify its stand on Section 66A.
What is Section 66A of the IT Act?
Section 66A prescribes the punishment for sending "offensive' messages through computers or any other communication device such as a mobile phone or a tablet, and a conviction can fetch a maximum of three years in jail.
According to the act, any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,-
(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
(b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
(c) any ‘electronic mail’ or ‘electronic mail message’ for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.
What is the problem with that?
The vagueness about what is “offensive”. The word has a very wide connotation, and is open to distinctive, varied interpretations. It is subjective, and what may be innocuous for one person, may lead to a complaint from someone else and, consequently, an arrest under Section 66A if the police prima facie accepts the latter person’s view.
Petitions that changed the system
A) Shaheen Dhada & Rinu Srinivasan of Palghar were at the centre of the first petition — by Shreya Singhal. When Mumbai saw a shutdown following Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012, Shaheen posted on Facebook, “Every day thousands of people die. But still the world moves on… Just due to one politician dead. A natural death. Every one goes crazy… Respect is earned not given out, definitely not forced. Today Mumbai shuts down due to fear not due to respect.” Rinu, who “liked” the post, commented: “Everyone know it’s done because of fear!!! We agree that he has done a lot of good things. also we respect him, it doesn’t make sense to shut down everything! Respect can be shown in many other ways!”
Detained for 10 days, they were first charged under IPC for spreading hatred and then under Section 66A of the IT Act.
Shreya Singhal, 24, a Delhi-based law student, was the first to challenge the law in court after the arrest of Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan of Palghar in 2012. Shreya contended Section 66A goes against the right to free speech as enshrined in India’s Constitution. Her PIL cited the twin arrests as evidence that the law, though meant to protect citizens from defamation, can be used to restrict freedom of expression.
B) Rajeev Chandrasekhar, independent Rajya Sabha MP, filed a PIL in 2013 arguing that Section 66A is unconstitutional because in the name of securing the Internet and in the name of preventing abuse of the Internet, government and government bureaucrats were overreaching and trespassing on the constitutional right of free speech.
C) Faisal Fariooqui, one of the petitioners, is founder-CEO of MouthShut.com, a user-generated content and consumer review website.
D) Ambikesh Mahapatra, a Jadavpur University professor, was among the petitioners. Mahapatra and his neighbour Subrata Sengupta were arrested for circulating a cartoon that mocked West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in 2012. The cartoon, based on a scene from Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella, showed Mamata pointing at the logo of Indian Railways and telling Mukul Roy: ‘See Mukul, Sonar Kella.” Roy points to Dinesh Trivedi and exclaims: “That’s an evil man!!!” Mamata says: “Evil man, vanish!”
E) Aseem Trivedi, the other cartoonist arrested under 66A in 2012, too was among the petitioners. Mumbai police arrested him for cartoons, shared on social media, that mocked Parliament and corruption in high places. One cartoon depicted Parliament as a giant commode and showed in the national emblem wolves rather than lions, with the words “Bhrashtameva jayate” instead of “Satyameva jayate”.
F ) 11 students of Sree Krishna College, Thrissur, as well as their principal were accused under IT Act Section 66A and nine of them were arrested in June 2014. Their case was the subject of a petition by Anoop M K, one among the bunch that the Supreme Court had taken up. Their online magazine Name was found to have used “objectionable and unsavoury” language against Prime Minister Narendra Modi — in the form of a clue to a crossword puzzle. It used Modi’s nickname G) NaMo as the crossword clue, for which the purported solution was an invective. They were also accused of defaming Oommen Chandy, Rahul Gandhi, Shashi Tharoor as well as spiritual leader Mata Amrithanandamayi. The students were SFI activists, who were later released on bail. The complaints were lodged by ABVP and KSU activists.
H) Taslima Nasreen too filed a petition against 66A. In November 2013, one Hasan Raza Khan Noori Miyan lodged an FIR in Bareilly accusing the Bangladeshi author of hurting religious sentiments of the Muslim community via social media.
I) In October 2012, Ravi Srinivasan, owner of a small plastic manufacturing unit in Pondicherry put a post on Twitter saying that P Chidambaram’s son Karti had amassed more wealth than Robert Vadra.
J) Two Air Indian employees, Mayank Mohan Sharma and K V J Rao, who were arrested in November 2012 for uploading content against the PM and allegedly insulting the national flag. They were kept in custody for 12 days before being granted bail. In Pune, the cyber cell in 2012 arrested Amit Chandrakant Jadhav, 27, of Mumbai for allegedly uploading a doctored image of Ajit Pawar on Facebook.
K) The same year, following attacks on people from the Northeast, the cyber cell arrested Mumbai-based teacher Sharif Ahmed Bashir Siddiqui for allegedly uploading a provocative video on YouTube.
L) Last May, Bangalore police arrested MBA student Syed Vaqas, 23, following a complaint by social activist Jayanth Tinaikar, who accused Vaqas of circulating a WhatsApp message supposedly showing Narendra Modi’s “funeral” with the words “Ab ki bar antim sanskar”. He was released after police found he was innocent
M) In 2013, residential-school owner K Chhawnthuama allegedly sent “malicious SMS” to Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla and was arrested, though not under Section 66A. This month, his son was arrested for a Facebook post in which he said he would “tie up the CM and drag him around on the street” after the CM took a swipe at his father saying he “uses his deceased wife to make money”, referring to a marble tomb the school owner built and which has become a tourist attraction.
N) Chhattisgarh Youth Congress leader Rais Khan arrested for Facebook posts about Hindu gods, journalists Rajkumar Soni and Narayan Sharma booked for defamatory articles.
But West Bengal, our state led them all with over 100 cases in the last year only. The statistics bear testimony to the despotic rule in the state where the section has been repeatedly misused in order to stifle the democratic voice and demolish freedom of expression in the cyber world.
SFI cordially welcome the Supreme Court judgement to repeal the Section 66A, saying that the provision was “very widely drafted”, and gave arbitrary powers to police officers to make arrests. Let the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression prevail.
28th March, 2015