The Left parties and the Aam Aadmi Party have wholeheartedly welcomed the Supreme Court’s verdict scrapping Section 66A of the IT Act that made posting offensive comments online punishable with a jail term. The Janata Dal (United) and the Samajwadi Party, on the one hand, and the Shiv Sena on the other — ideologically worlds apart — were united in their disagreement with the apex court.
But the two largest parties in the country, the BJP and the Congress gave calibrated responses: while welcoming the court’s ruling, both parties added caveats. Interestingly, the Left parties and the Aam Aadmi Party accused the BJP and the Congress of taking the “same anti-democratic position” on the issue in the court.
The CPI(M) used it to hit out at its political rival, the Trinamool Congress, saying the apex court had sent the “correct message” to State governments such as that of West Bengal that they cannot suppress dissent. The AAP pointed out that Section 66A had often been misused by the Congress and the BJP governments.
If the Congress’s guarded reaction reflected the party’s need not to denounce something that it had helped put on the statute book while in power, the statement from the BJP — that it would need to study the verdict before giving a structured response — was in consonance with the Modi government’s affidavit in the case.
The Congress said it was “deeply conscious of the fact that one person’s individual liberty of expression cannot unilaterally infringe upon another person’s liberty.” It, however, acknowledged that the safeguards that it wove into the Act had been found insufficient by the Supreme Court.
The Congress targeted the BJP, speaking of its “ever shifting stand on the issue… as BJP and Shri Arun Jaitley termed the law as ‘online emergency’ while in Opposition and justified the same when in power through an affidavit in the Supreme Court by stating that Section 66A was necessary to regulate the use of cyberspace.”
However, former Union Minister P. Chidambaram was unequivocal, welcoming the judgment and saying, “The Section was poorly drafted… was capable of being misused and, in fact, it was misused.”
As for the BJP, even though its counsel defended the constitutional validity of Section 66A, the Modi government maintained that it respects freedom of speech and expression and is not in favour of curbing dissent on social media.
“Our government took a very conscious decision that we don’t support the stand of the previous government,” Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
The JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav said that though he respected the judiciary, it was wrong to strike down the “good” provision as freedom of speech does not mean “freedom to abuse.” The Shiv Sena felt it would weaken the hands of the law enforcement agencies against those who “misuse” the social media.
The SP’s Azam Khan, who had hit the headlines after a student was arrested for allegedly posting an “objectionable” remark against him, hit out at the media, accusing it of “supporting criminals”, when asked about the apex court’s judgment.