New NDA government, old UPA ideas: The continuing defence of Section 66 (A)

New Delhi,Pranav Joshi: On Wednesday, the Modi government argued before the Supreme Court of India that Section 66 (A) of the IT act was essential, despite the controversy surrounding it. Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court that “there was a need for a mechanism to put checks and balances on this medium”, because the Internet doesn’t “operate in an institutional form.”

He was responding to the Supreme Court’s contention that the penal provision was too vague. The ASG further justified the government’s stand on Section 66 (A) by stating that, “Considering the reach and impact of medium, leeway needs to be given to legislature to frame rules. On the Internet every individual is a director, producer and broadcaster and a person can send offensive material to millions of people at a same time in nanosecond just with a click of button.”

Internet censorship in India has gained significant ground since the inception of Section 66 (A), which decrees that a person may face a jail term of upto 3 years for causing ‘annoyance’ or ‘offence’ on the internet.

The act has been roundly criticised by free-speech activists and Internet users as being an easy tool in the hands of law enforcement agencies to prosecute people expressing their views on the Internet. In fact, the law has already been misused a number of times.

On Wednesday, Twitter erupted in anger against the government’s stand on Section 66(A).

The Tzars and the Hitlers are knocking on your door. Sharpen your pencil now!

Some users like Kapil tried to make people aware of how arbitrary the law can be:

Tomorrow Govt can ask Twitter to close your account without giving any explanation

Some users were quick to point out a U-turn in the BJP’s stand after coming to power:

Times of India @timesofindia

Interestingly, the hash tag Modi used two and a half years ago in the tweet above is now being used to criticise his own government:

View image on Twitter

Guess this was a jumla too. @ankitlal @VishalDadlani

The allegation of hypocrisy is worth examining here. In 2012, the BJP, then in the opposition, had strongly opposed the UPA government on Section 66 (A). Since last year, the government seems to have taken a very different stand.

This is the same Congress government wearing Saffron.

In July last year, in a reply to independent Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar, the government said that the provisions of Section 66 (A) are in consonance with the right to freedom of speech and expression. It also claimed that Section 66 (A) was based on ‘the best international practices’ as similar laws existed in other countries.

Will modi put black DP again to protest against ?

This is in complete contrast to the uproar the BJP had raised when in opposition. In 2012, the BJP had supported a resolution calling for amendment of Section 66 (A), labelling it draconian. The saffron party had then made several critical comments, saying the section was an attempt of the UPA to impose ‘Emergency-like curbs’ on freedom of speech and expression, which ‘demonstrates the fascist mindset of the party leading this government’.

This was around the time the Section was causing the maximum outrage. Following the death of Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray in November 2012, two women were arrested for posting comments critical about Thackeray on social media. Earlier, a man had been arrested for claiming on Twitter that Karti Chidambaram, son of P Chidambaram, had accumulated more wealth than Robert Vadra.

The anger at the time was significant and though the UPA dispensation as well as the opposition BJP made noises, nothing concrete could be worked out to amend the section.

Instead, the misuse of Section 66 (A) has continued into the days of the BJP government. When a case was filed against All India Bakchod for ‘using abusive and filthy language’ during an episode of programming, Section 66 (A) was slapped on the accused, perhaps because the controversial video had been uploaded on Youtube. Recently, an FIR was filed by the BJP in Mizoram against a man for ‘posting false information against PM Narendra Modi on Facebook’.

Recently, the ASG also claimed in the Supreme Court that the Section was important to ensure that ‘religious sentiments were not offended, by things such as pictures of Goddesses in bikinis or showing Gods in sexual relations with animals’. The ASG termed these ‘grossly offensive’ but the Court was not convinced.

The emphasis on protecting religious sentiments is interesting, given the inclinations of the BJP government to ignore or shield extreme elements within its sister organisations for their repeated tendency to make outrageous statements or allege offence at the slightest provocation. Opposition on social media to such statements can result in arbitrary arrests by the state enforcement machineries which are empathetic to the Modi government.

Forms of expression like satire, poetry and cartoons are the most vulnerable, but even ‘liking’ a post deemed to be offensive can land the person behind bars. Moreover, most police officials in India themselves are not very well informed about the provisions of the law, and if they are, interpretation becomes a problem. The scope of the law is wide and the safeguards afforded to citizens are very few.

It is very disheartening that a section which is a UPA relic and was first expanded to prevent harassment of women on social media, has continued to be a tool in the hands of the next government to monitor dissent on social media. It may talk of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, but upholding Section 66 (A) is exactly ‘maximum government’. It seems that no matter who holds the reins of power, internet censorship remains an important means of information control.