ALMOST a year after the Supreme Court brought the Internet within the contours of free speech by striking down the much-abused Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, two youths were arrested in Madhya Pradesh for sharing online a morphed image of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.
On a complaint stating that the duo had hurt sentiments of Hindus, Shakir Yunus Banthia, a 22-year-old from Bhikangaon, and Vasim Shaikh, a 21-year-old from Khargone, were arrested for sharing an image combining Bhagwat’s torso with that of a woman’s body clad in brown pants.
The image allegedly sought to make fun of the RSS’s decision last weekend to change its dress code, police said.
The youths have been charged under sections 67 of the Information Technology Act and 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code. Section 67 relates to publishing obscene material in electronic form while Section 505(2) pertains to statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes. Both charges can lead to a maximum of three years’ jail.
Banthia, a first-year degree student, had shared the image on WhatsApp while Shaikh posted it on his Facebook account, police said.
Banthia’s arrest was recorded at Gogawa police station on Wednesday following a complaint filed by local resident, Rajnish Nimbalkar, who alleged that he had hurt the feelings of Hindus because Bhagwat represented the community. Shaikh was arrested on the same day by police at Kotwali station based on a similar complaint.
Both were produced before a magistrate who sent them to judicial custody till March 30.
M P Varma, in-charge of the Gogawa police station, told The Indian Express that Banthia was neither the group administrator nor had he created the image. “He had only shared it on a WhatsApp group,” the officer said.
However, Additional SP Antar Singh Kanesh said both were arrested for sharing the same image and that invocation of Section 505(2) in the case was “self-explanatory”.
The arrests led to protests with local Congress leader Parasram Dandir leading a delegation to the Additional SP’s office and questioning the arrests “when the youths had not even created the image”.
Last March, the Supreme Court had trashed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which authorised police to arrest people for social media posts construed “offensive”or “menacing”.
The apex court had asserted the supremacy of the right to freedom of speech and expression, holding that under the Constitution, it was not open to the state to curtail this right even to promote general public interest.
“What may cause annoyance or inconvenience to one may not cause annoyance or inconvenience to another. When it comes to democracy, liberty of thought and expression is a cardinal value that is of paramount significance under our Constitutional scheme,” it had pointed out.
However, the validity of Section 67 of the IT Act, which authorised police to make arrests for abusive messages shared through a computer or communication device, was not challenged before the top court.
(With inputs from Utkarsh Anand, New Delhi)
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