A social media spat has spun out of control, and defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is now in the clutches of the empire of hurt sentiments for his remarks on the Konark temple, the origin of Odisha. Iyer-Mitra was summoned to Bhubaneswar for breach of privilege and he apologised. But the moment he stepped out of the Assembly, he was arrested by Naveen Patnaik’s government and will be held, pending the deliberations of a House committee.
The cases filed against him in Puri and Khurda are plainly attempts to curtail free speech. In the House, Iyer-Mitra had admitted to “stupidity”. The internet can be an accelerator of human stupidity, since the speaker is not face to face with those spoken to, and does not apprehend immediate consequences. But the freedom of speech includes the freedom of stupid speech, and if the perpetrator has admitted to taking liberties, it should suffice to assuage hurt sensibilities. The court, which has always acted as the custodian of the individual’s right to free speech, must bring this absurd drama to an end, provide relief to Iyer-Mitra.
All dispensations, of all political colours, have been brave foot-soldiers of the empire of hurt sentiments, from the central government to Naveen Patnaik’s in Odisha. Long before the internet, the communist government in West Bengal arrested a young man for lampooning the Bengali character. But SLAPP-suiting really came into its own with the help of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. Before it was struck down as unconstitutional in 2015, it was used across the country to choke off inconvenient speech. In the east, Mamata Banerjee used it to punish a university professor for forwarding a satirical cartoon, on the charge that it constituted a death threat. In the west, two young women were arrested for objecting to the Shiv Sena shutting down Mumbai following the death of Bal Thackeray. The ensuing case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India trashed Section 66A. But its spirit lives on, in the shape of actions like the one against Iyer-Mitra. In general, social media squabbles are best settled on social media. And if a line has been crossed, platforms have mechanisms to suspend users. If public order is not affected, there is no justification for the state or the law to step in.