Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Freedom of Speech: Section 66A

    India is a free country. It has the largest written constitution in the whole world. One of the key rights in our constitution is the right to free speech. People are free to express themselves anyway they want. Article 19 of the Constitution of India, guarantees the Freedom of speech and expression, as one of following six freedoms/rights that every citizen of this country has.This right is universally applicable to all citizens, irrespective of race, place of birth, religion, caste or gender. So basically, people can express themselves anyway they want, Unless they are “against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

    With the evolution of internet, people are becoming more cognizant about their rights & duties and are being “modernized”, breaking the shackles of our existing “traditions” and making a progressive transition to a 'modern' society. Is modernization good? That’s a totally different topic, and has a very mixed, contrasting views among different people. That discussion is for another time though :P. Coming back to the topic, internet has really helped people grow and be more “modern”, and the social media has played a key role in this development. People have become increasing vocal on Facebook and twitter and are raising their opinions and voices on literally everything. Well, there’s the right to free speech, so this shouldn’t really be a problem.

But were we always really “FREE”?

    In  2008, the Indian Parliament passed a bill in the parliament, that would amend the existing IT act of 2000. This bill was passed in 2009, and came to be known as the IT amendment act of 2009, Section 66A. This act comprehensively restricted the so called “free speech” to a certain level.

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.

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.

“Grossly Offensive, causing annoyance and inconvenience…...”

    Who defines these terms? Clearly, not the government who passed the bill. These terms are so vague, that everybody has a different interpretation. One of the main problems with the act is the fact that it is framed in an obscure and sweeping language, which allows law enforcement authorities to interpret it in a subjective manner. What, for instance is information that is 'grossly offensive' and has menacing character'? If someone were a religious purist who believed God created the world in seven days, they may find a status update on evolution to be 'false information'. If someone says Salman Khan deserves to be in jail because the law is equal for all, Sallu bhai’s fans might find it offensive, but that dosen't make them right! If I say Khap Panchayat’s thoughts are moronic and absolute dogshit, the honor killings and the dress code are inhumane and utterly disgusting, the people who believe in that system would go absolutely insane.
    What maybe is gross to someone, could be necessary for others. While some things can annoy a few people, but it might be the case that needed to be said. It’s all about perspective.

    With the unascertained definition of this section, it had been widely misused by police in various states to arrest innocent persons for posting critical comments about social and political issues and political leaders on social networking sites. Police had been arresting people over posts on social media that officials claimed were "seditious"," communally sensitive” or abusive.Most of these arrests were for posting controversial remarks or photos, while some were for sharing, commenting on or liking such posts.

Some of the most bizzare arrests were as follows:

•    Aseem Trivedi, a Free speech campaigner, was arrested by Mumbai police for displaying cartoons on his website and Facebook page that mocked parliament and corruption in high places.
•    Two young girls from Palghar, were arrested when one of them posted a question on her Facebook page questioning why the city was shut down for Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's funeral.One of them commented that the shutdown was out of fear, not respect. The second girl, her friend, was arrested for liking the post. 

They were arrested for "hurting religious sentiments"

•    Kanwal Bharti,a Poet and writer was arrested by police for posting a message on Facebook that criticised the Uttar Pradesh government for suspending IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal, who had cracked down on the sand mafia. 

•    A 19-year-old Class 11 student in Uttar Pradesh was arrested for his social media posts linking state minister Azam Khan with a communal incident.

   This list is pretty long, and to be honest, the arrests were pretty stupid. So much for the “free speech”, people were arrested even for being tagged in a post. You say something… anything about a “big” person and you find yourself behind bars. This repressive act needed to be stopped.
    So Shreya Singhal, a 2nd year law student from Delhi university filed a PIL in the court after the 2 girls were arrested for the facebook posts. 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. This was followed by the PIL filed by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, independent Rajya Sabha MP, 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. This battle continued for 3 long years, and this movement against this act grew stronger with time. And finally, on 24th march 2015, supreme court finally struck down the law that allowed police to arrest people over “offensive” posts.

    “It is clear that Section 66A arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right,” said a Bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and Rohinton F. Nariman.
    The information disseminated over the Internet need not be information which ‘incites’ anybody at all. Written words may be sent that may be purely in the realm of ‘discussion’ or ‘advocacy’ of a ‘particular point of view’. Further, the mere causing of annoyance, inconvenience, danger, etc., or being grossly offensive or having a menacing character are not offences under the [Indian] Penal Code at all,” the court held.
    Holding several terms used in the law to define the contours of offences as “open-ended, undefined and vague”, the court said: “Every expression used is nebulous in meaning. What may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another. What may cause annoyance or inconvenience to one may not cause annoyance or inconvenience to another.”

    Finally, the Supreme Court talked some sense. And this draconian act was struck down. People all around the country were overjoyed. We would now finally be free. And fearless! And the happiness was quite visible on the social networking sites and then the trolling begun.
Here's few of the best tweets:

    Whats the point in living in a country without a even a little sense of humor. A place where you are not allowed to express how you feel.  A place where you cannot express your discontent against whats wrong in the society. A place where you are expected to shut the fuck up and witness the bullshit all around. We didn’t want this, but we weren’t doing anything about it either… We were just waiting for something to happen… someone to do something about it…

We needed a hero. Debi Mazar once said,
    “A hero is somebody who is selfless, who is generous in spirit, who just tries to give back as much as possible and help people. A hero to me is someone who saves people and who really deeply cares.” …. and we got one in Shreya Singhal, who made the first attempt against this injustice. Her brave and selfless stride against the matter inspired a sense of “fight-back” among the citizens and finally, we got back our “freedom”.

    Sometimes, all we need is a little courage… a little strength…a little push.. and we can change the world. We can choose to be who we are… who we want to be.. how we want to live. Maybe we’re afraid of what could happen, and what could not. Afraid to walk on the grueling path alone. But once we’re set on the path, the strength comes from within. The world isn’t perfect. It never was. But if we don’t stand up and fight for what we believe is right, it never will be!

P.s- I know its pretty late for this post, but I always wanted to write it :P

References : The Hindu, Indian Express