Liberal Sibal To The Rescue
Kapil Sibal’s “deep sorrow” at the misuse of the IT Act may finally put the lid on a stupid, oppressive law.
Kapil Sibal is a wonderfully liberal man, the kind of liberal man one expects to come out of St Stephen’s College, Harvard Law School and, of course, the bit-to-the-left liberal Indian National Congress. Which is why I call Liberal Sibal, Kapil Libal.
If someone mentions in his or her Facebook status that “Kapil Sibal has an incredibly small penis”, the Union Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister will either laugh it off or ignore the comment. At best, he’ll write a rhyming poem out of it on the lines of: “Why talk of my knob/ on Facebook or blog, when mobile penetration, has India agog?”
The unflattering statement put up by some opinionated soul would be treated as “ridiculous”, “infantile” and “inconsequential” by Libal and life would go on as usual – both in the world of the media and in the world at large that the former tends to use as a dance-floor whenever things get a bit boring.
If someone, however, mentions in his or her Facebook status that “Bal Thackeray had an incredibly small penis”, or “Sonia Gandhi has an incredibly small penis”, the chances of a reaction being muted would be rather slim. Some ever-vigilant worshipper of the late Shiv Sena chief and the Congress president would react with thunder-slaps and unleash the full force of “spontaneous outrage” and take recourse to whatever the law has on the menu to counter any such insult. Peculiarly, if the object of ridicule or critique happens to be Sonia Gandhi, even the liberal I-can-take-a-joke-about-myself Sibal would then be activated into finger-wagging, eye-glaring action.
But thankfully, no one posted a status update on his or her Facebook denigrating the private parts of Bal Thackeray in public after the news of his death last week. What was posted on Sunday was on totally different lines:
“With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died (sic) a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone (sic) showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.”
The person who posted this on her Facebook page on Sunday, Shaheen Dhada, and her friend Renu Srinivasan who “liked” it, were both arrested on Monday after a complaint was filed at the police station by Bhushan Sankhe, the Shiv Sena president for Palghar in Thane district. But you already know that.
The two women had been first booked under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code – “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. But on finding that Shiv Sainiks were not synonymous with Shaivites, they were soon arrested under a “secular” 1860 law – Section 505(2) of the IPC: “Statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes” – and a more recent law, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act: “Sending false and offensive messages through communication services”. Shaheen and Renu were arrested on Monday to 14-day judicial custody but were released on bail later that day by the Palghar court on a bond of Rs 15,000.
With the IT Act being one of the tools of the arrest, the Union telecom and IT minister – the liberal, anti-intolerance (not the same as tolerant) Union Telecom and IT Minister – had to say something. He told the media: “I am deeply saddened. It is just their point of view and enforcement of these laws is not to ban people from expressing their views”. Doesn’t that heartfelt mixture of unrhymed anguish and anger make you choke with emotion? Someone out there, someone in the political space, had the courage, the heart to stand up to Shiv Sainik bullies and beholden local policemen and point out that it’s not right to intimidate those who criticise or harbour different points of view.
I’m not going to go into the despotic nature of Section 505(2) of the IPC. Any criticism can be turned into an uttering that can send “false and offensive messages through communication services”. And as I’ve tried to say earlier, what comes across as “false and offensive” depends totally on the thickness of the skin of those who feel offended. You may not haul me to jail for calling you a “moron”, but some local imam and his cohorts may feel the need to do exactly that. And the response of the political class, especially in the ruling Congress, to any such easy outrage is as predictable as it’s pusillanimous (no, that’s not a dirty word worth slapping a case against me over).
Congress spokesperson, Sandeep Dikshit for instance, said that “filing a case against the girls is unfortunate” and he “hoped” that the Maharashtra government will correct it. He was making a gentle petition. But then he added that “a comment or two a day or two later could have been all right as it was a sensitive time on the day of Thackeray’s funeral”. I guess a Delhi Congressman such as Dikshit was trying to tell us to be thankful that when a giant tree like Thackeray falls, the earth below is bound to shake.
But because the comment about Thackeray and the enforced bandh in Bombay was made on the internet and because the IT Act was brought in against the two accused, let me focus on brave, big-hearted, Kapil Libal.
Last year, Libal had told the media that he had, as Telecom Minister, demanded that Google and Facebook screen user content before offensive matter was posted on them. This weeding was to be done not in response to complaints – which Google and Facebook respond to according to merit – but in a pre-emptive manner. What Libal had said was that the two companies had to second-guess what anyone may find offensive on their platforms and then ensure that no one gets offended.
Libal had informed the media in a press conference that “some of the content he finds objectionable could hurt religious sentiments”. Off the record, he showcased some of these “objectionable” materials before the press conference that included obscene and “defamatory” representations of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.
Now, Kapil Libal believes that in the case of the uploaded message on the Facebook page of Shaheen Dhada about the silliness of the Shiv Sena-imposed bandh after Thackeray’s death, the hullabaloo is all wrong. Forget about Shiv Sainiks being confused; I am thoroughly confused.
But Libal may have just promised us a rethink on the IT Act – even as he tries to lay the blame of its misuse on law enforcers than the law itself. “I don’t think the Act is to be misused in this fashion. And I think if there are enforcement authorities using it in this fashion, then we need to have a relook because we want to make sure that this Act is not meant to prevent from stating their point of view on any issue.” And damn right he is. No one should be prevented from stating their point of view about any of his governmental colleague’s son, his bosses, or anything. If someone has a problem, there’s always a court of law where libel can be contested.
In the meantime, a quick recap of Section 66A of the IT Act:
Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service etc: 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; or
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.
Now it’s up to my hero Libal, the liberal Kapil Sibal, to realise that anyone writing “Bal Thackeray had an incredibly small penis”, or “Sonia Gandhi has an incredibly small penis”, is indeed being as “grossly offensive”, causing as much “annoyance” and as much “inconvenience” as when he or she writes “Kapil Sibal has an incredibly small penis”.
Now would Libal let loose the IT Act to arrest such an annoying, offensive person? Nope. So why have a stupid law that allows others, far less liberal than Sibal, to use it? Just scrap it, Libal.
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