66A: Discontinuing of the Draconian provision
The Supreme Court on March 26, finally decided to scrap the “archaic” provision of Section 66 A of the IT Act of 2000 garnering a triumphant response from the public across the social media. While some are considering this a major milestone in the pursuit for attaining liberty of expression on new media, there are those of us, who believe that the judgement came a bit too late. But before we discuss any further, one must understand what 66A is all about and why is there such a huge hue and cry about it.
In layman’s language, if a one can afford a computer or any communication device and use it to voice one’s opinion or perspective on any given topic, one can be arrested and charged under the above said provision. One may face imprisonment for up to three years if one attracts the ire of someone in power or a high level bureaucrat.
The provision mentions as to how the information must be “grossly offensive” or “menacing in character” for the provision to take effect, which I find jocularly hilarious. The ambiguity and vagueness prevalent in the provision is stark, leaving one to contemplate as to what would be defined as “menacing in character” or how offensive is “grossly offensive”. This clearly presents a frightening judicial limbo when it comes to the provision and one is left to assume what really constitutes it.
Now this is where it stops getting funny. We realize the flimsy and tenuous statutory interpretations that the police often garner off of this to facilitate their dubious agendas (which of course are seldom their own, and mostly belong to that of the Party in power or even the state government for that matter).
Looking at instances, there are plenty. From Jadavpur University Professor, Ambikesh Mahapatra’s arrest for a political cartoon about West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to that of businessman, Ravi Srinivasan in Puducherry for an allegedly defamatory tweet against the son of Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. Ironically enough, Chidambaram was quick to respond to the banning of the banal law, applauding the decision to do so. However, the worst case of violation of freedom of expression that rocked the nation came last November, when two young women, Shaheen Dadha and her friend Renu Srinivasan, were arrested for a comment posted on Facebook that questioned the shutdown of Mumbai following the demise of Shiv Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray. The girls were arrested under Section 66A (a) of the IT Act for allegedly sending a ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘menacing’ message through a communication device.
“It is clear that Section 66A arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right,” said a Bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and Rohinton F. Nariman on successfully abolishing the act. This may serve as justice to those whose rights have been violated but it hardly gives a solution to the larger picture.
My predicament is, will the abolishing of the wretched undefined provision be followed as lawfully as while it was imposed? Or will there be continuance of “choking of the windpipe” of the general masses, hidden behind the facade of bureaucracy drawing parallels with the often corrupt police forces?
Another disappointing fact that must be raised is that unlike many archaic laws like the Article 377 which have been prevalent in the country since the Pre-Independent British era, 66A is fairly new in its initiation. The law was amended in 2008 and received Presidential assent on February 5, 2009. This raises the fundamental question as to how an act which was so clearly flawed in its nature, which would tend to get more “misused” than “used”, saw the light of the day. This raises an even larger question on the very national fibre on which the country stands and makes one wonder as to whether the democracy in which we reside in is merely a titular one.
Rounak Bose is a reporter at The Manipal Journal and a student of School of Communication.
The views expressed in the blog are personal.