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Law And Immunity

Move to criminalise cyber speech will add impunity to power

Written by Rajshree Chandra | Published: October 24, 2017 12:55 am
 online free speech, cyber speech, it act, information technology, ipc,home ministry, internet trolls, indian express Move to criminalise cyber speech will add impunity to power

How to police a cyber space that has acquired the instincts of Frankenstein’s monster? In pursuit of answers, an expert committee submitted an interim report to the Union Home Ministry a couple of weeks ago. The recommended amendments to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) are noteworthy for two reasons. One, they bring within the ambit of IPC (through amendments to Sections 153 and 505) any visual, audio, video, verbal or written communication, transmitted or retransmitted through any telecommunication service, device or computer. They propose that any speech that is disparaging, offensive, indecent, abusive, hate, gravely threatening — and so interpreted — be criminalised.

It is possible to discern in the government’s move the continuance of a relatively consistent narrative that seeks conformity and compliance. Section 66A of the IT Act may have been struck down in the Shreya Singhal case but this is its new, more astute avatar with a better operating legal-ware. It seeks to add yet another speech-control legislation to the plethora of existing penal codes: Sections 295A, 124A, 153A, 505 that target acts ranging from malicious, to seditious, to disruptive of public order or morality, to violent, to plain mischievous. None of these provisions preclude speech on social media. One wonders, then, why is there a move by the government to acquire more punitive powers?

The wonderment grows when we are to peruse the social media cases that have been considered “repugnant to public order and morality”. Pankaj Mishra, a CRPF jawan, was arrested last week in Jorhat for questioning the home minister and the prime minster over service conditions. A BSF trooper, Tej Bahadur Yadav, was dismissed from service for using social media to complain about food served to jawans. Prabhat Singh, a Bastar-based journalist, was arrested for an offensive Whatsapp message. Film-maker Shirish Kunder had an FIR registered against him over his tweets criticising the BJP’s decision to appoint Yogi Adityanath as UP chief minister. A medical practitioner was arrested in March in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, on charges of hurting religious sentiments by posting a picture of a sadhu buying meat. A Jadavpur University professor and his neighbour were arrested for allegedly circulating a cartoon that lampooned Mamata Banerjee. This list is quite extensive and spans various governments’ dubious records on free speech.

In each of these cases, one or the other pretext of public order, morality, derogatory speech, slander and defamation was used to outlaw advocacy, mirth, caricature and the worst of all crimes, dissent. To add to law-keepers’ selective, politically motivated ire is not just what it cherry-picks but also what it ignores. It chooses to turn a deaf ear to posts, threats and tweets that are deeply offensive, obscene, misogynistic and violently communal. It chooses to remain unmoved by any civic or national imperative when the target of vicious trolling are journalists, film-makers, authors, writers, painters, common people who are just doing their jobs as citizens. It even chooses to use an ordinance, as in Rajasthan, to outlaw the investigation into the conduct of judicial or political power.

It is nobody’s case that the freedom of speech is an absolute freedom. But our constitutional commitment to free speech demands that it cannot be suppressed unless the situations created by allowing the freedom are pressing and the community interest is endangered. And this “danger” cannot be remote, hypothetical, or stemming from a poor appetite for mirth and scorn. It should have, as the Supreme Court said in Shreya Singhal, a proximate and direct nexus with the expression, quite like the equivalent of a “spark in a powder keg”.

The trade-off between free speech and public order/morality has never hurt political dispensations. In fact, the more controlled speech is, the greater has been the immunity and impunity of political power. The proposition that more law would lead to more order becomes a recipe for more moralised political control, more paternalism and more statism. We need to remember that free speech preconditions the realisation of many of our claims and entitlements. Less of it translates into less democracy in general.

The writer is associate professor, department of political science, Janki Devi Memorial College and senior visiting fellow, Centre for Policy Research

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  1. K
    Oct 24, 2017 at 9:36 pm
    India polity thrives on abuses an insults. Very few desire to stay and tolerate such illogical harangues
    1. N
      Oct 24, 2017 at 8:00 pm
      I have studied in detail the history of Germany in the 1800s and up to 1945. This sort of gaging was one particular force that was widely implemented by the victims of Holocaust for over 150 years ever since they manuevered the politics there to become dominant enough to subjugate the indigenous Germans. And we all know what exactly happened. Brahmins want to repeat exactly but more brutally the same in South Asia. Fo ahead Brahmins...go ahead.
      1. R
        Rapist Pope
        Oct 24, 2017 at 9:59 pm
        I also studied History of Germany and history of civilizations all over the world. Your bullsheit and lies is the reason we all know that you are representing the Catholic Christian Rapist Mafia White Supremacy Church where Pope rapes at least 5 children every day in Vatican. Do you know that naazi Hitler who you refer to was a catholic Christan who followed Bible to the core where you have hate and vi0lence verses in Christian Bible to kill the Jews and Gypsiers whoever are not white.
        1. K
          Oct 25, 2017 at 3:50 am
          It is never a surprise that a Aryan Brahmin a s s o l e would not mind to send his women folks to Israelites or anybody that is fair skinned. A contrasted dik is a love for brahmins like you.
        2. T
          Thrinethran T
          Oct 25, 2017 at 6:29 am
          To which desert doctrine do YOU adhere, that so brazenly invented a soap- bubble conspiracy to justify a genocidal history, of your own?l
          1. P
            Oct 25, 2017 at 6:46 pm
            Amazing that you justify Israeli DIK SUKKING, YOU BRAHMIN WEASEL Thrinetran.
        3. Vimal Kumar
          Oct 24, 2017 at 6:59 pm
          I was a proud Indian who refused to emigrate but I now regret that I did not do so. Returning to India after a long overseas stint and seeing the petty politics and politicians who rule in various states makes me sad. Gone are the days when people cared about the country. Today it is complete vote bank politics and absolutely no concern for the future
          1. V
            V. Setty
            Oct 24, 2017 at 8:34 am
            There should be no free license to abuse, insult, accuse and/or use unacceptable and/or abusive language, irrespective of the medium, whether it is internet, fax, phone and old style writing, especially if the forum of communication is public.
            1. V
              Oct 24, 2017 at 7:50 pm
              What you say would be ok for those who have no morality because they were born out of absolute filth and don't mind if anybody rapes their women folks through legislation made by piMPs in Parliament and approved by the Supreme CORRUPT BSTRDS who end up as THIEF JUSTICES OF INDIA(Re ta r d e d)
              1. R
                Rapist Pope
                Oct 24, 2017 at 10:02 pm
                Is this abusive language you learnt at the Christain Church where you were raped by your christian padre priest?
            2. C
              Oct 24, 2017 at 6:24 am
              ‘Minimum government, maximum governance’..this adage is true in a representative democracy where the rule of the government is very limited. This is not true in India, where a government is elected to rule and not to serve. The more powerful a government becomes, the greater is the threat to a democracy, which ultimately only remains a system of vote and a tyranny of the minority over the electoral majority. The rights of citizens far outweigh the power of the government, and if this trust is breached, we have gone back to the days of non-independence. It's not a matter of progress, it's a pure issue of protection of citizens rights under the cons ution. If we can't counter this, then better to forget that we are a democratic republic and hope for another 'swaraj' from our own indigenous rulers who under the pretext of imposing morality-laced nationalism are in fact imposing Hyper-nationalism that is akin to imperialism, colonialism and in its extreme manifestation, terrorism.
              1. S
                Oct 24, 2017 at 11:44 pm
                For last 70 years we are living in an anarchy plus vote regime. Vivekananda did not fight for political freedom. His argument was simple: first build your own character and make yourself competent. We did not heed him. The result is the present mess. Gandhi was a disruptor. He was not a builder. He broke the society but did not rebuild it. We suffer.
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