Barking up the wrong wall

Cops found a soft and wrong target to test-fire penal provisions against the social media

Updated - November 17, 2021 10:45 am IST

Published - November 23, 2012 05:57 pm IST

“No political party or organisation can claim that it is entitled to paralyse industry and commerce in the entire state or nation and is entitled to prevent the citizens not in sympathy with its viewpoint from exercising their fundamental right or from performing their duties for their own benefits or for the benefit of the state or the nation.”

This wasn’t another Facebook wallpost post Mumbai’s 19/11 happening. This was a landmark ruling of the Kerala High Court on bandhs 15 years ago. A judgment that was upheld by the Supreme Court, which, following a violent agitation in 2007, termed the spectacle a ‘national shame’.

Now are these observations very different from Shaheen Dadha’s timeline post? The young woman seems cut out for a career in journalism and that post seemed like a hard-hitting editorial that was far from being politically correct. Was she a soft target? I’d also say wrong target because she expressed no disrespect for the deceased leader but merely commented on the shutdown.

Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” must be squirming in her grave. Why are we becoming so impervious to constructive criticism? How does that post create enmity between classes? Where is the criminality in those sentences?

To my little legal brain, it sounds quite innocuous. Even in criminal defamation, truth and fair comment are valid exceptions. How did this act warrant immediate arrest? If press reports are accurate, the manner of arrest may also well be a violation of the Supreme Court guidelines in the D.K. Basu case.

And if pressing a ‘Like’ button will land you behind bars, as a listener on a radio show suggested, Facebook could have an option ‘apply for anticipatory bail’! A ‘Like’ button is perhaps a step ahead of a re-tweet on Twitter. Incidentally, many profiles carry a disclaimer “retweets are not endorsements”. Legal liability over forwarding an original comment that is defamatory or attracts other penal provisions may be a moot point. But no one in their senses can ever take a stand that liking a view that didn’t go against the Constitution is a crime. Law enforcement agencies in a country that gave even a terrorist such as Kasab a fair trial must surely be less dictatorial. Was that post against national interest? Or are bandhs (clearly distinguished from strikes and hartals by the Supreme Court) against national interest?

Arrest is to contain damage. In this case, the illegal arrest was counter productive. What only the girls’ friends or subscribers could have seen, the whole world has now read many times over. Many users have copied and pasted the same post on their timelines daring the Thane cops to arrest them. The whole episode underscores an important fact and a bitter lesson for the powers that be. The social media cannot be wished away. The voice of the common man cannot be muzzled. The ‘power of one’ can quickly turn into a mass campaign. Because freedom of speech is not a gift to citizens. It is not merely granted. It is guaranteed. If the cops really want to test-fire penal provisions vis-à-vis the social media, let them look at the inflammatory, communal, intimidatory and venomous comments that are abundant online.

And not go after innocent young women who have been so traumatised that they have deactivated their accounts. This is a classic case of barking up the wrong wall.

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