The arrest of two girls for a Facebook posting on the Mumbai bandh has shocked people. G. KRISHNAKUMAR visits a campus to elicit the reaction of students.

Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan were among millions of ordinary netizens in the country till November 19, when the extraordinary events surrounding Shaheen’s Facebook post questioning the Mumbai bandh that followed Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s death changed their lives forever.

Her friend Renu’s alleged crime was that she “liked” the message. The Mumbai police arrested them on charges of “promoting enmity between classes” and “sending offensive messages through [a] communication service” triggering protests in the virtual world and outside.

Community websites and social activists group blamed the government for trying to curtail the constitutional right to free speech and expression.

Many viewed the incident as continuing efforts by the governments and the political parties to silence dissent through the brazen abuse of power.

The Hindu-EducationPlus caught up with students of the School of Engineering campus at the Cochin University of Science and Technology to debate the topic and elicit their views on various aspects related to the incident.

Explaining that the arrest of the girls evoked a feeling of insecurity within her, Anwesha Raj, first year student of the Computer Science branch, said that Shaheen’s post was “simply her reaction to, or may be her protest against, the bandh on the day of Bal Thackeray’s funeral.”

Not sentiments

“This has nothing to do with anyone’s sentiments. Shaheen’s arrest and the attack on her uncle’s clinic, along with other threats, point towards the disguised dictatorship we are living under. Lack of defined parameters for the implementation of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act is hampering the freedom of speech. It could be easily used against a person expressing his or her dissent over any incident on the social media. It becomes a matter of ‘sentiments’ when a common man merely expresses his or her outlook,” she said. Supporting the need to have strict cyber laws, Pranav Prakash, first year student of the Computer Science branch, said that the authorities had quite regularly used these to harass people criticising the high and mighty in the upper echelons of the governments.

“It is quite obvious that how vague the law is and how easily it can be misused. I really don’t understand what was wrong with Shaheen’s post about the chaos in Mumbai. But then again, that is a personal opinion which everybody is entitled to have, including the police and Shiv Sainiks. However, India being a democracy (the world’s largest for that matter), everybody is well within his or her right to express the freedom of speech. But it seems that our government thinks otherwise. This incident clearly shows the fickle nature of those in power. Democracy may cause a lot of procrastination, but the true essence of it lies in the fact that everybody is free to express his or her views,” he said.

Let it be free

Stating that he would not like to fully agree to the view that social websites need to be controlled on the basis that it could be used to tarnish the image of people, Maaz Sohrab, a student of the Computer Science branch, reminded that many who did not have any work to do just come on Facebook nowadays and did trivial things evoking a view that social networking sites should be monitored.

“People would be then afraid of expressing their views on important matters, which is not good for the nation. Controlling and monitoring the social networking sites and disturbing the privacy of millions are not the solutions. But I would like to know where was our IT Minister when a few anti-social elements were creating the fake account of a girl in their class and trying to defame her,” he asked.

Wrong tradition

Noting that the girls should have given a more generalised opinion rather than referring to a person or an organisation in particular, Bhavana V.B., a first year student of Computer Science, said that declaring holidays, hartals and demonstrations in the wake of death of leaders had become a tradition in the country.

“It would be really useful, if the public could join hands in doing good deeds for the country’s uplift as a tribute to these great souls rather than holding bandhs or demonstrations. This has already become a practice in countries such as Japan and Korea where people work as part of the commemoration. I also strongly believe that in case of expositions of the former kind, violence tends to give a very ugly face. This is when ‘the pen becomes mightier than the sword’ and such social networking websites allow people of different backgrounds joining forces to deal with a particular issue. Democracy is a government run by the people, for the people and of the people and if an Indian citizen does not criticise the government, who else will,” she asked.