Now I know, every time you read the word “Facebook” and “jail” in the same sentence in an article on our website, you think: “Oh great, it’s one of those posts Newslaundry puts up…” And it’s true, we’re always hitting out at Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act because it deserves a nice beating.
This time, an Eleventh grader from Uttar Pradesh was sent to jail because of a Facebook post that quoted Samajwadi Party leader and Uttar Pradesh’s Urban Development Minister Azam Khan.
Azam Khan has categorically denied making the above remark – it was wrongly attributed to him.
A first information report (FIR) was lodged by Azam Khan’s media in-charge Fasahat Ali who claimed that the post was incorrectly attributed to Khan.
The student was picked up from his home by the police on Monday and put in a lock-up at the Ganj Kotwali police station.
“The Facebook post carried derogatory language against a community and was wrongly attributed to Azam Khan,” said Dinesh Kumar Sharma, station house officer, Ganj Kotwali.
According to NDTV, the student has been booked under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act and other sections of the Indian Penal Code for sending offensive posts through a computer and breaching peace. How exactly? We will never know.
The boy’s family claimed that he had just shared the post on Facebook and not uploaded it himself. They are also willing to apologise to Khan if it keeps him out of jail.
It’s remarkable though that the police acted with such alacrity in arresting somebody for a Facebook post when it refuses to act in case far more serious than this. But then, the UP Police is known to be swift when it comes to being at Khan’s service. Last year, the entire hierarchy of Rampur police, led by the district’s chief superintendent of police and a squad of sniffer dog, set out in pursuit of Khan’s missing buffaloes.
This isn’t the first time either that the UP government has arrested people for a Facebook post. A noted Dalit scholar, Kanwal Bharti, was sent to jail for expressing is concern over the suspension of an IAS officer. In this case too, Azam Khan, upset with the post, had a filed a complaint against Bharti.
“Since the age of the student is still unconfirmed, putting a minor in judicial custody is wrong. This would make this arrest an abuse of the law,” says columnist Kanchan Gupta.
Nikhil Pahwa of MediaNama asserts that society should understand that offence is an integral part of expression. It doesn’t help that the Centre recently backed 66A. “I’m very disappointed by the Centre’s approach to this. It indicates that the government doesn’t want the people to be free,” he says.
Pawha added that in the case of Chaganti Rahul Reddy who was arrested in Andhra Pradesh for a Facebook post about Cyclone Hudhud, the Centre had reassured the people that higher officials will handle matters pertaining to 66A and the police will not be free to go about arresting people. But Reddy was arrested none the less.
“Now we can’t event trust the police and the Centre to uphold the right to free speech,” says Pawha, “it’s up to the Supreme court now to ensure that citizens’ rights are upheld.”
Gupta and Pahwa both believe that the Act needs to be removed. “This happens across the country. The main culprit is 66A. It has to be deleted from the IT act,” says Gupta. Indeed there are enough legal recourses to tackle cases such as this under the civil and criminal defamation law. 66A, in essence, is just an Act that works to intimidate people rather than tackle the spread of misinformation.
Anja Kovacs form The Internet Democracy Project says speech on the Internet is measured with a different yardstick than speech offline. Section 66A even provides higher penalties for offences that exist in other (offline) section of Indian law like criminal intimidation and defamation.
“This coupled with the fact that police don’t need warrants to make arrest, makes this law very dangerous if abused. If this continues, people will end up self-censoring themselves in fear of being jailed and that is the worst kind of censorship that can happen to free people,” she says.
Twitter also was up in arms as the news of the arrest broke.
Now since the powers that be insist that 66 A is a necessary evil, here is the thing: Necessary evils coupled with compulsive loons can make a country a terrible place to live in and Khan has proved just that once again. Also, the argument that India being a land of diverse faiths and beliefs needs the Act is, on the contrary, precisely the reason we can’t afford to have it. As a set of people more than prone to being offended, this law, used with kind of recklessness as it is being now, will lead to half of us ending behind bars.
And Mr Azam-oh-so-touchy Khan, if I started invoking Section 66 A each time I am offended by your and your party colleagues’ misogynistic diarrhoea, I swear, you’ll never see your buffaloes again.
Update: The Supreme Court has asked the UP government to explain the arrest of the student, who was let out on bail by a court on Thursday.