Three days after they charged four Supreme Court lawyers under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), police in Tripura have invoked the same stringent anti-terrorism law against 102 social media handles, and served notices on US-based Internet companies seeking detailed information on the owners of these accounts.
In a notice served through Twitter’s online Law Enforcement Request system, the officer in-charge of West Agartala police station asked for the blocking of 102 handles, which he said were spreading “objectionable news items/ statements” about the recent clashes and alleged attacks on mosques in the state.
Police also asked Twitter for information on the users or administrators of these accounts, who they claimed had posted fake or fabricated photos and statements online that had “potential to flare up communal tension”.
Similar notices were served on Facebook and YouTube as well.
“…Some persons/ organization are publishing/ posting distorted and objectionable news items/ statements in Twitter regarding the recent clash and alleged attack upon mosques of Muslim communities in the state. In publishing these news items/ posts, the persons/ organizations have been found using photographs/ videos of some other incidents, fabricated statements/ commentary for promoting enmity between religious groups/ communities in presence of a criminal conspiracy,” police said in their notice.
“The posts have potential to flare up communal tension in Tripura state between people of different religious communities, which may result into communal riots,” the notice said.
The notices to the Internet companies were sent in connection with a master case registered at the West Agartala police station charging the owners of the social media handles under IPC Sections 153A (promoting enmity), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 469 and 471 (forgery), 503 (criminal intimidation), 504 (insult to provoke breach of peace), and 120B (criminal conspiracy), and Section 13 of the UAPA.
Among the information sought on these handles are their user registration details; browsing log details from the date of registration till date; lists of IP addresses from which the users had logged on; mobile numbers attached to these accounts, including verified mobile numbers added for security reasons; and a list of the accounts that the users had linked to the social media accounts or pages under scrutiny.
Police have said that while some 150 social media accounts were initially listed for scrutiny, after a careful examination of the content, 101 accounts were shortlisted, which allegedly had “malicious propaganda” in them and “potential to create hatred”.
A senior Tripura Police officer told The Indian Express that communal propaganda on social media had been found to have a “one-to-one correlation” with the visit and briefing of the Supreme Court lawyers — because of which notices were served on both the lawyers who made the statements, and the social media users who amplified them and made comments that had the potential to create communal hatred.
The independent fact-finding team of the four advocates who visited Tripura under the banner of ‘Lawyers for Democracy’, had alleged that some Hindu organisations had unleashed violence in minority areas, and attacked mosques, and homes and shops owned by Muslims.
According to police, the lawyers’ briefing on Tuesday was used to spread rumours on social media. The issue had been blown out of proportion, some users had claimed that rape had been committed, and some had more inflammatory statements, police have said.
According to the police officer quoted above, pictures from other places were circulated with the claim that they were from Tripura with the intention of creating communal hatred. Also, the investigating officer had found the involvement of the four lawyers in the “distortion of facts”, the officer said.
The case, which was initially being investigated by the West Agartala police was handed over to the Crime Branch on Friday evening.
“As per case number 181 registered at West Agartala police station, notices were served against 68 Twitter accounts, 31 Facebook accounts and 2 YouTube accounts. A separate case was also previously registered against one Facebook user. Notices were sent to authorities of all these social media companies asking to block the concerned accounts and pages and provide particulars on the users”, the officer said.
He said that the police action did not mean that the accused would be arrested immediately. “They have been asked to appear before the police and clarify. They can also mount a challenge in court”, the officer said.
On invoking the tough UAPA against the alleged offenders, the officer said that anyone trying to spread divisions among groups, communal hatred, and propaganda, is deemed to have committed “unlawful activities”. He said that Section 13 of the Act was a relatively light clause that prescribed a maximum punishment of seven years in prison.
Nabendu Bhattacharya, a spokesperson for the ruling BJP, argued that the police action did not amount to curtailing citizens’ democratic rights.
“The police will naturally have to collect evidence and investigate… If they (accused) are involved with such activities, proper action must be taken against them… Freedom of speech and expression is a must in a democratic country but it can’t be limitless,” Bhattacharya said.
Tripura Congress president Birajit Sinha said charging the Supreme Court lawyers who visited Tripura and addressed the media was “not right”.
“They didn’t come here to create communal riots. Applying such laws against them isn’t right. The government can take action if they make communal propaganda. This is misuse of law”, Sinha said.
TIPRA Motha chief Pradyot Kishore Debbarman said while police should indeed take action if they have a very strong reason, he questioned whether action had been taken against those who raised communal slogans and allegedly vandalised religious places last month.
CPM leader Pabitra Kar agreed that people should not share posts on social media that could disturb communal harmony, but criticized the government for asking for users’ accounts to be blocked.