If the Supreme Court, which is currently hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the constitutionality of the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, needed another reminder of the egregious abuse of powers it makes possible, it only has to turn to Uttar Pradesh. A 19-year-old student was arrested under the section by an uncharacteristically alert Rampur Police barely a day after allegedly making an “objectionable” Facebook post about senior Samajwadi Party leader and state Urban Development Minister Azam Khan. He has since been released on bail. But the manner in which the state police and administration have conducted themselves is more evidence that Section 66A needs to be radically reconfigured, if not deleted altogether.
That Section 66A was invoked so casually and with such alacrity to jail a student is especially appalling considering that the same police force and administration have been shamefully tardy in bringing to book those accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, for instance. The special investigation team probing the communal violence there said in August last year — almost an entire year after the riots — that some 800 of the accused were still absconding. But double standards and disproportionate response aren’t unusual in UP. In 2013 again, a critic of Khan and UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was taken into custody only a day after a complaint was made about his supposedly offensive Facebook post.
In its ongoing defence of Section 66A before the Supreme Court, the NDA government has cited guidelines issued by its predecessor in January 2013 — in response to an outcry about Section 66A being arbitrarily employed to silence political dissent and against soft targets like cartoonists, teachers and teenage girls — which mandate that only senior police personnel can order arrests under the section in order to prevent “harassment to any citizen”. This latest case from UP, however, exemplifies the dangers inherent in Section 66A. Not only does it impose more draconian restrictions and penalties on speech online than offline, the so-called safeguards against its misuse also amount to little more than window-dressing.