Two young women who were arrested a few days ago from Palghar—one for posting a comment on Facebook against the shutdown in Mumbai after Bal Thackeray’s death and the other for ‘liking’ it—were held under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code and Section 66A of the IT Act. While many have questioned the applicability of Section 295A (‘outraging religious feelings of any class’), in this case, what has generated most criticism is the use of Section 66A of the IT Act.
Under this Section, any online content identified as ‘grossly offensive or [which] has menacing character’ or ‘electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience’ can result in a three-year jail term. While the original Act was passed in 2000, Section 66A was amended in 2008. It was passed without any discussion in the Lok Sabha. Currently, there is a PIL in the Madurai High Court seeking to declare this section unconstitutional and contradictory to the principle of ‘freedom of speech’ granted by the Constitution.
According to free speech proponents, it is a draconian law being misused by governments and political leaders. This very year, there were three well-known cases in which arrests were made under this section. A professor in Kolkata, Ambikesh Mohapatra, was arrested for emailing his friends a satirical cartoon of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Anti-corruption activist and cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who had started a cartoon campaign against corruption in the Government, was arrested under ‘sedition’ charges, for insulting the national emblem of the country and violation of Section 66A. And Ravi Srinivasan, a businessman in Puducherry, was arrested for posting ‘offensive’ messages against Union minister P Chidambaram’s son, Karti. Srinivasan had tweeted that Karti’s wealth exceeded Robert Vadra’s.