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Rediff.com  » News » Sibal's Law: 'Grossly offensive' and of 'menacing character'

Sibal's Law: 'Grossly offensive' and of 'menacing character'

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November 01, 2012 10:41 IST

'Kapil Sibal has passed a law that anyone posting anything "offensive" on Twitter can be jailed for three years. That's section 66A of the IT Act amended by United Progressive Alliance II in 2008.'

'It's a cognisable offence so you have to be arrested and apply for bail. As though you had committed murder!' notes Shivam Vij.

So an aam aadmi tweeted that the Union finance minister's son Karti P Chidambaram has amassed more wealth than Robert Vadra, and voila, he gets arrested! Chidu Jr tweets: 'Free speech is subject to reasonable restrictions. I have a right to seek constitutional/legal remedies over defamatory/scurrilous tweets.'

Except that, as far as is known, the businessman whose Web site describes him as 'The Young Politician', has not charged the writer of the 'defamatory' tweet with defamation. Why not?

Because he'd have to prove defamation in court. Because the person won't be arrested right away. Because Chidu Sr's esteemed colleague Shri Kapil Sibal has passed a law that anyone posting anything 'offensive' on Twitter can be jailed for three years. That's section 66A of the IT Act amended by United Progressive Alliance II in 2008.

It's a cognisable offence so you have to be arrested and apply for bail. As though you had committed murder!

If the same allegation was made on wall graffiti or by Arvind Kejriwal at a press conference, nobody would go to jail. But say it on Twitter and the long arm of the law gets a little longer.

Why is it that Subramanian Swamy can make strong corruption allegations against Karti P Chidambaram, as he did back in April, but Chidu Jr won't put Subramanian Swamy in jail?

An aam aadmi, however, is not dangerous to politicians. The Tamil Nadu police even wanted to keep the man in jail 'on remand' for 15 days, but a magistrate granted him bail.

This proves what a lot of us have been arguing: That the real and only intent of Kapil Sibal's draconian Internet laws is to crush dissent, is to tell people that talking about the Congress party's corruption is not allowed.

Welcome to 1975, or was it 1984?

While various aspects of growing Internet censorship in India have been commented on, it appears that the most dangerous one of them has not received sufficient attention. That's because it's a draconian aspect of the Information Technology Act which many thought wouldn't be misused. After all we aren't China.

But alas, our blanket faith in the inherent goodness of the Indian democratic system allows our rulers to trample upon our rights. That is how Communications Minister Kapil Sibal can grin and claim, every now and then, that he is not for censorship and control over the Internet. He can lie through his teeth and we allow him to get away with it.

Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, came into force in 2010. The section makes punishable with three years in jail posting online 'any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character.'

There's more to it. A non-bailable arrest warrant for you if you upload information that you knew was false, but you posted it only to cause 'annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will.'

Yes, annoyance and inconvenience.

There have already been at least three cases of misuse of this section, before even Kapil Sibal's colleague's son put it to use.

In April 2011, the West Bengal police arrested Jadavpur University Professor Ambikesh Mohapatra for merely forwarding on e-mail a cartoon making fun of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, using a reference to a Satyajit Ray detective story. It reached Mamta Banerjee and she was offended.

Sibal's Law was used and the cartoonist was in jail.

Other charges -- such as defamation and insulting women under the Indian Penal Code -- were not cognisable, so it was only Sibal's Law that treated him like, well, a gross offender.

Similarly, Congress and Dalit activists in Maharashtra targeted cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for his anti-corruption cartoons that he displayed at the MMRDA grounds in Mumbai in December 2011. Their real intent, it seems, was to show the Anna Hazare movement as being anti-national. They charged him with the cognisable offence of sedition, but also with Sibal's Law -- because the cartoons were also available online.

His Web site cartoonsagainstcorruption was shut down in less than 24 hours, using another bit of Sibal's Law, the intermediary liability rules. Aseem found himself in jail for a few days in September.

More recently, a Chandigarh resident Heena Bakshi was angry with the local police for not doing much to recover her stolen car. She posted an angry message on the Facebook page of the Chandigarh police. It said:

'You people kill us with your 'nakaas' n check points. Harassing us if we are just driving around at night. But you have no f*****g clue when somebody steals that car from under your eyes. The police started questioning me. If I was making this whole **** up or if someone actually stole it.'

Does she deserve jail for this? Well, Sibal's Law came to the aid of the Chandigarh police. I don't know if Ms Bakshi has found her car yet.

In all these cases it is clear that the powers-that-be -- politicians and government – are using Sibal's Law to muzzle our voices, to silence dissent, to discourage we the people from expressing out anger against the government.

If this is not the Emergency mindset, what is it?

I find Kapil Sibal's eyebrows offensive. I can't put him in jail for that but he can put me in jail for saying as much online. If his law did not apply only to the Internet, but to everything, then that would be fair. In such a fair world I would be able to apply Section 66A against the gross offence his eyebrows cause me.

Sibal announces every other week censorship is not his intent. He says it as if we are supposed to be grateful to him for that. As if we should burst into screams of joy, 'All hail Indian democracy!' But the above examples show that Internet censorship is very much his intent.

In other words, he spreads a lie every time he claims censorship is not his government's intent. If he was to say this on the Internet I would be able to apply his own law on him and have him arrested!

As I said, section 66A includes this as punishable, cognisable offence: 'Any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill-will, persistently makes by making use of such computer resource or a communication device.'

The government has appropriated to itself the task of deciding what is reasonable speech and what is unreasonable speech. That task should belong to the courts and the Indian Penal Code is enough for that.

If the tweet is defamatory, Chidu Jr should file a defamation case. There is no need for any special law for the Internet. The need for special Internet laws is felt by the powerful who realise that criticism and dissent are no longer the monopoly of a pliable, corporate media.

Those troubled by the aam aadmi's uncontrollable criticism include the corporate media. Senior television journalists like Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghose constantly complain about online trolling and 'hate speech'. They have thus helped build an environment in favour of Sibal's Law -- 'causing annoyance', 'menacing character', 'grossly offensive' are all good descriptors of how the powerful see online dissent.

These journalists have thus favoured draconian laws while paying lip service to free speech by arguing that while corporate media is covered by legal restrictions online media seems to be a free-for-all.

But I am also only demanding equality. Mamta Banerjee walked out of a Sagarika Ghose show in Kolkata. She was offended by the questions posed to her. She was also offended by the cartoon a professor forwarded on e-mail.

While the professor had to go to jail and seek bail and will be doing the rounds of the courts to defend himself, Sagarika Ghose has not been charged with the cognisable offence of 'causing annoyance' or being 'grossly offensive' to Mamata Banerjee.

If Sibal's Law applies to a professor, why should it not apply to an editor? Is CNN-IBN Deputy Editor Sagarika Ghose more equal before the eyes of the law than a professor who imparts education?

I have a point Sagarika, don't you think so? If my question annoys you, please don't use Sibal's Law against me.

Shivam Vij

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