The people of India wouldn’t be questioning the legality of the IT Act today, if the following sequence of events hadn’t occurred : A venerated politician died (some differ on the choice of adjective), a Bandh (shut down) was immediately enforced in the city, an innocent girl offered her opinion about the futility of the shut-down on a private social profile, another girl voiced her agreement- and WHAM! Both the girls are arrested under sections of the IPC for committing the offence of hurting religious sentiments and under the IT Act of 2000 ; the two girls are locked up then released on bail, party supporters of the late politician attack the shop of one of the girl’s relatives, the hoodlums are not arrested and before you know it, we’re looking at another social brouhaha.
I remember the response on many social websites to this incident. I would love to report that everyone was instantly messaging and tweeting and updating their statuses about it, but to be honest- opinions were generally muted. People were afraid of getting caught for voicing dissent, messages and chat records were deleted, photographs erased- anything incriminating was eliminated from social profiles. It was only after a while that people began complaining about this travesty of justice. Till then, we were all concerned about our own safety.
The original voice of protest was crystal- drop the charges against the two girls. Online petitions were being signed, news anchors were getting into heated arguments with politicians and law enforcement officers, all the discussions were revolving around one uncomplicated question : Did the law permit the police to arrest two people on grounds as unfounded and baseless as these? Were the IPC Section 295 (a) and IT Act responsible for infringing on the basic right of the citizens (Article 19 1 (a)) i.e to voice their opinions freely without the fear of censorship and punishment? Whether it was through social media or not was only relevant to the point that it involved usage of information technology.
And if this act was being exploited to silence the voice of the people- why was it that threats and arrests were only being made against the common man, especially those who dared to express discontent against a politician with clout and not those politicians themselves who indulged in abusing each other openly?
It took a 21 year old astrophysics student to file a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) challenging the IT Act, for the media to truly have an argument against this law. It was only when a citizen raised her voice, that some semblance of cogitating could be used to corner the administration. This is what the student’s petition stated :
The phraseology of Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards, that it is susceptible to wanton abuse and hence falls foul of Article 14, 19 (1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution
Basically : You need to review the language that supposedly gives teeth to the IT Act. Article 14 refers to equality before law and equal protection of law, Article 19 (1) (a) refers to freedom of speech and expression and Article 21 refers to right to life and personal liberty. As we can infer from the above mentioned case of the two girls who were arrested, it is safe to conclude that all three of these rights were violated.
She also added :
Unless there is judicial sanction as a prerequisite to the setting into motion the criminal law with respect to freedom of speech and expression, the law as it stands is highly susceptible to abuse and for muzzling free speech in the country
Translation : The executive function authorizing police personnel to actually arrest people for such an offence must fulfill the sine qua non of having received a judicial sanction.
Before I start analyzing the various aspects of the IT Act, the public response and the media row- I think it’s only fair that I produce the act correctly here, for both your and my benefit. According to Section 66 of the Information Technology Act 2000 :
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 makes 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.
In layman terms- and I’m as much of a layman or laywoman as you are – Firstly the preliminary statement above the main body only talks about information through computers or communication media. Secondly, it refers to language or terminology that is grossly offensive or has menacing character (??). Now here the main question is what exactly is grossly offensive language or information of a menacing character? Which kind of opinions or statements can be characterized as such and is this characterization lawful or not?
In an interesting interview, a leading news anchor questioned the IT minister about the very same. According to the news anchor (and she’s one of my favorites), when such vague and broad terms are used to define an offence then it leaves scope for abuse or misinterpretation. So she asked the minister- does that mean this needs to be reviewed or amended?
The IT minister- because he isn’t just well versed in the law, he’s fairly acquainted with diplomacy too- evaded the issue for as long as he could. Far from promising hope, admitting that a gross error in judgment had been made, or simply acknowledging the necessity to change such an antiquated law- He retaliated with facts like ‘ Other countries have similarly framed laws, they don’t seem to be complaining’ or ‘why don’t you tell me what changes can be made?” Moreover he took it upon himself to point out that even freedom of speech can be restricted as deemed fit by the government for the sake of public decency or morality. Superior defense. Why don’t you just come out with and say that the government did the right thing in the circumstances and is absolutely unabashed about it? That popular saying ran through my head when I was watching the interview “Being contrary to be contrary”
In media, the reason this issue is being barbecued on every news channel is because people are looking for the source of the injustice and the plausible solution that would inhibit such events. They are looking for an apology, someone to blame and something to hope about. All I’m saying is, is this too much to ask for?
Moving on, section (b) is presumably applicable in the case as well. Although the knowledge of whether the statement was false or not is not relevant, many would claim that the motive to annoy, deceive or cause insult or injury could be present and the mere suspicion of that would justify the arrests. On the other hand (c) is repeating (b) and talking about anonymous messages as well as the predetermined punishment.
In more recent news, the police officers who carried out the arrests were sacked- although the politician’s goons vociferously protested that- and in response to the PIL the Supreme Court issued notices to the Union Government and few other states, seeking an explanation for arrests that had resulted from the abuse of Section 66 of the IT Act 2000.
As proactive as this judicial decision sounds- the citizen mood has evidently reached a nadir of discontent and distrust. Most netizens- especially those belonging to the social networking generation are outraged that such a basic and essential right has been violated repeatedly and that pushing and shoving is making very little headway with the current government. If not anything else, this incident has at least proved that not everyone is asleep and not everyone is willing to ignore injustice. If that offers some solace to those who have been wronged and if this precludes similar circumstances which are reasonably foreseeable , then all this public outcry is probably worth it.
(SOURCE : Possibly every news report available on the net. Courtesy of social media and the Indian Constitution.)
(NOTE : If you find any discrepancies in the legal/media details provided, kindly let me know and I will rectify them. This is just my way of looking at it, folks.)