By: Shreya Singhal
In 2012, two young women from Maharashtra were arrested, one for expressing her opinion and the other for liking it. They were arrested under Section 66A of the IT Act. I was shocked, not only at the arrests, but also at how blatantly 66A was being misused. To criminalise something uploaded to the internet that may be “annoying”, “grossly offensive” or “of menacing character” is chilling. The arrests of a businessman in Pondicherry and a professor in West Bengal under the same section were my breaking points. The fact that there was this vaguely worded section under which people were being arbitrarily arrested, for innocuous comments or funny cartoons, was something that couldn’t be allowed to continue. I challenged this section on the grounds that it violated our constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to free speech and expression.
I approached the Supreme Court, which, apart from being the country’s highest court, is the guardian of citizens’ rights. Governments are political entities with political views. They have agendas that differ according to the party in power. But laws are forever. The draconian Section 66A, which had been misused across party lines, could only be remedied by the Supreme Court. Our parliamentarians failed us by not even discussing the amendment through which the section was added to the original act.
It is easy to become a cynic. Reading stories of rape and murder, of the courts taking years, even decades, to decide cases and of corruption in the system leaves one feeling unsure and wary of the direction in which the country is heading. Filing this petition has restored my faith in the system.
Our society is diverse and made up of people of different castes and religions, who have differing and divergent views. Diversity of opinion is an integral part of our society. These views cannot be suppressed, they must be cherished, protected and allowed to grow. This is what makes us a democratic and secular society. The freedom of speech and expression is fundamental, not just because our Constitution says it is, but because it is part of our identity.
The internet age has made the world a smaller place. These days, you don’t even need a computer to access the Net, just a smartphone will do. The internet has become the largest platform to communicate and express views. To gag and restrict this medium would affect citizens in the most intimate way. The internet, unlike media such as television, newspapers and radio, allows all users to create content that others can consume instantaneously. This makes it even more important to protect free speech on the Net.
I was just lucky to be the first person to file a petition against 66A. But the judges of the Supreme Court, Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice R.F. Nariman, are the real heroes here. By striking down Section 66A in its entirety and holding it to be unconstitutional, they have upheld the people’s right to free speech on a platform that unites India. Section 66A was a blanket provision that criminalised content that was uploaded to the internet and attracted a three-year jail sentence. It placed a greater liability on the speaker because of the platform that was used. It was mostly always used in conjunction with other provisions of our laws and resulted in arrests made with rare speed.
In a post-66A India, I have no doubt that people will be able to exercise their right to free speech more vigorously. This right is only ever called into question when there is a difference of opinion, a minority or dissenting view. However, such opinion is just as important as the majority’s and should stand on an equal footing.
But this judgment does not give us the absolute right to post anything on the internet. There are provisions in the Indian Penal Code and the IT Act that are capable of dealing with crimes associated with the internet, such as defamation, incitement, hate speech, phishing, fraudulent use etc. Posting on the internet now has the same liabilities as the written word in a newspaper and speech on TV.
This journey has been an education for me and an invaluable experience, especially as a student of law. I had an opportunity to witness the legal process in such an intimate manner and appreciate the hard work and effort that go into each case, not just by the lawyers but also by the judges. This victory is not mine alone, it’s the country’s, it’s every Indian’s victory.
Be the change you want to see.
The writer challenged Section 66A in the Supreme Court.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines