In India, the largest democracy on Earth, 21-year old Shaheen Dhada was arrested for posting a status update on Facebook questioning the complete shutdown of cities for Bal Thackeray’s (rightwing leader notorious for inciting religious hatred and violence) funeral on Sunday, 18th November. Her friend Renu Srinivas was also arrested for “liking” the update which reportedly read: “People like Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a ‘bandh’ [shutdown] for that.“
The girls were arrested under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for “hurting the religious sentiments of others” and section 66 (a) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, after the complaint was made by a local Sena leader in Palghar police station, reported NDTV.
66A of the Indian IT act deals with communication made via computer or other devices which may be “grossly offensive,” have a “menacing character,” or even cause “annoyance or inconvenience”. This draconian law had been severely criticized for being authoritarian and stifling freedom of expression.
Dhada quickly removed the comment and apologized for it but that didn’t stop this hostility. Some 3,000 party activists of extreme right-wing party Shiv Sena ransacked the clinic of Dhada’s uncle as reported by Times of India.
The incident has incited outrage among the social activists and members of press. Chief of the Press Council of India, Markandey Katju wrote letters to Chief Minister requesting “to immediately order the suspension, arrest, chargesheeting and criminal prosecution of the police personnel”.
Apart from activists, public also took to social media to express their dissent over this incident. Some tweets read:
@varun_dutt A girl gets arrested for “liking” a comment on FB. The thought police frm George Orwell’s 1984 is no longer fiction. #paghlar #freethegirls
@DeathEndsFun Quite apart from questions over Sec 66A, is there an explanation about what is “offensive” or “false” in that comment? #freethegirls
@realg88 So not even allowed to complain about the inconvenience of a bandh? Another sad day in India #paghlar #freethegirls
@mohitgandhi69 A facebook status can get you arrested faster than killing someone now. #freethegirls
Much has been recently discussed about India’s policies of Internet censorship and this clearly isn’t the first example of misusing of article 66-A. Times of India reported a case in September when a cartoonist was charged on sedition for insulting national symbols through his cartoons – the charges were later dropped after intense reaction by local and international activists.
These two girls noticeably looked scared after this event. In an interview to BBC Hindi, Shaheen said, “I’m not angry, I’m not sad, but I’m just shocked. It was just my point of view; I’m shocked that it was my post because of which all this happened.”
Her friend Renu Srinivasan also shared, “We are apologizing just to keep everything in place. We don’t want any violence. We want ourselves and our families to be safe,” to the CNN-IBN television channel.
India ranks top third in the number of Facebook users after the U.S. and Brazil. Such impractical actions not only present a very anti-democratic picture but also set a threatening alarm to the basic human rights of the Indians. This incident is not only grave for freedom of speech but hits hard at a place where there aren’t many open social spaces for women to talk and discuss political issues.
Such harassing arrests not only help in intimidating women who are already oppressed by men of families in patriarchal societies but would also pave way to a vulnerable and hostile environment. In the past this has been tried to silent people and women specifically who were outspoken in the public spaces.
Now on the social media which defied the norms by being very accessible, a bit protecting, and “not-concerned-with-real-life”, this incident would make people think twice before posting some political comments – at least some women. If such cases aren’t fought against intrepidly and the harassers, policemen and aggressive party members aren’t taught about freedom of expression, we would lose just another space for women.
Written for GenderIT.