It’s hardly a coincidence that we are hearing and reading reports of an 18-year-old Muslim boy, Zakir Ali Tyagi, being locked up in an Uttar Pradesh jail for 42 days because of a few “galat” Facebook posts, and the imminent revival of the dreaded Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000, in a newer, deadlier format.
The simultaneity of the developments is a sign that we need to join the dots quickly and see how a resurrected Section 66A, brought back to life like the Frankenstein’s monster, will be a tool in the hands of those in power to check free expression of those at the receiving end of it.
The Telegraph reported on October 11 that the Muslim teenager was arrested for a “Facebook wisecrack” on the Uttarakhand High Court ruling on river Ganga, giving it a “living person’s entity”, which the SC had stayed, and sharing a few posts from Urdu press outlets questioning UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s temple politics in the state.
Zakir Ali Tyagi had joked if criminal charges would be pressed against Ganga if someone drowned in it. He had put up the picture of a murdered police officer investigating a case in Dadri as his profile picture. The Telegraph reported “sedition charges were allegedly added after he received bail”.
But the premise of the arrest, the harassment and torture (he was severely beaten up by a cop in plain clothes, kept with hardened criminals) of the youth was the “galat” social media post. And the FIR reportedly “alleges violation of Section 66 of the IT Act, which deals with hacking and prescribes three years in jail”.
This incident came to light when Tyagi was brought to speak at the Press Club of India by the recently formed Bhim Army Defence Committee, which is pursuing legal justice for Dalits, minorities and other vulnerable groups who don’t have the wherewithal to fight behemoths of institutional oppression.
Ghosts of Section 66A
Meanwhile, the Indian Express has reported that an expert committee constituted in 2015 after the “draconian” Section 66A of the IT Act was struck down in March that year – famously known as the “Shreya Singhal versus Union of India” case – has submitted its report, with recommendations to amend the Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure and the IT Act, so that “stringent provisions specifying punishment” can be introduced to “deal with cases of hate speech and use of cyberspace to spread hatred and incitement”.
While they are not calling for a re-introduction of Section 66A itself, the TK Viswanathan Committee has suggested amendments to IPC Section 153, Section 505A, CrPC 1973, and to Section 78 of IT Act to allow a police officer (recommends specially recruited ones to handle cyber crimes) to investigate any offence under this Act.
When Section 66A of IT Act was struck down in March 2015, it was a historic decision in keeping with our digital times, when expression and speech rely mostly on online communication, and written texts, posts, videos, images, memes, graphics, etc, form a substantial part of our daily interaction with each other and the world at large. In the judgment, justices Rohinton Fali Nariman and J Chamleswar had underlined the “vagueness” of the offence, such as causing “inconvenience, danger, obstruction and insult”, and that they do not constitute the exceptions to freedom of speech granted by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
As the case of Zakir Ali Tyagi demonstrated, or the famous example of Shaheen Dada, whose Facebook post on the late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s state funeral, made the party lodge a complaint against her under Section 66A. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has notoriously jailed an academic and cartoonist who lampooned her. The shadow of Section 66A is one of the worst burdens of the UPA 2 era, and the online policing of free speech and suspending Twitter accounts of the then highly critical journalists, was a sign that authoritarianism was creeping into the then ruling Congress government.