The police in Mumbai arrested Monday a 21-year-old college student Shaheen Dhada for a Facebook status update and her friend Renu Srinivasan for clicking "Like" on the update. The case is the latest in a string of recent crackdowns on Internet speech in India.
The update had criticized a general strike called by a political party, the right-wing Shiv Sena, to mourn the death Saturday of its elderly founder and patriarch, Bal Thackeray. The controversial leader has been hailed by Hindu nationalists but also criticized by liberals for leaving behind a legacy of political violence in India’s financial capital. The party has been accused of anti-Muslim violence in Mumbai in 1992, and Mr. Thackeray frequently made statements against Muslims.
In her Facebook post, Ms. Dhada wrote, “Respect is earned, not given and definitely not forced. Today Mumbai shuts down due to fear and not due to respect." She also said that politicians like Thackeray are “born and die daily” and the city need not shut down for it, and that people should remember the martyrs of the Indian independence movement.
Dhada and Ms. Srinivasan were arrested under section 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code that seeks to punish statements that amount to “creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes.” Additionally the two students have also been charged with Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that criminalizes online speech that is “grossly offensive or of menacing character.” Another law they have been charged with is Indian Penal Code 295A, which makes insulting or outraging religious feelings an offense. The punishment for each count is three years imprisonment each.
The arrests come in the wake of many such in India this year, a result of controversial new information technology laws. The other cases have included arrest of a resident of Chandigarh who complained on the Facebook page of Chandigarh police that they were not doing enough to find her stolen car; a cartoonist who posted work online protesting corruption scandals by the central government; and a professor in Kolkata who merely forwarded an email with a cartoon that was critical of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
While the women in the Thackeray case have been granted bail, the arrest has led to outrage on social media, with even right-wingers condemning the arrest as an assault on free speech.
Pranesh Prakash of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore says that the entire Information Technology Act needs a review by the government, civil society, and other stake-holders. “The current law does not have sufficient safeguards for privacy and freedom of speech and the law is being used as a tool of harassment,” Mr. Prakash says.
In a letter to the Maharashtra state government, Press Council of India chief Markandey Katju urged chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to take action against police officials who misused the laws to arrest the girls. Mr. Katju, a retired Supreme Court judge, wrote in his letter, “We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act since… it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime.”
On top of the legal action against the women, street thugs exacted further punishment. A mob of Shiv Sena activists vandalized the clinic of Ms. Dhada’s uncle, Dr. Abdullah Ghaffar Dhada. Speaking on the phone from Mumbai, Dr. Dhadha says he incurred losses of two million Indian Rupees (nearly $36,500).