SC’s Section 66A ruling: BJP pays the price for a self-serving U-turn

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March 24, 2015

NEW DELHI, INDIA – Narendra Modi is indisputably India's Number One Social Media politician. No other politician has been able to harness the power of social media as astutely as he did in his run-up to power.

March 24, 2015

NEW DELHI, INDIA – Narendra Modi is indisputably India's Number One Social Media politician. No other politician has been able to harness the power of social media as astutely as he did in his run-up to power.

Therefore it is especially embarrassing for his government to now be on the losing side of what is being hashtagged a landmark #SocialMediaVerdict.

The BJP could have been on the winning side of the Battle over Section 66A. Nothing would have signaled a dramatic break from the UPA-past as much as the new government telling the Supreme Court it recognized that Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act was unconstitutional, untenable and violated the right of citizens to freedom of expression.

Instead it now has to suffer the ignominy of being told all those things by the Indian Supreme Court.

The NDA government is trying to make its mark in many different areas of Indian public life. The PM wants to overhaul many aspects of the way India works and the way India sees itself. But the intricacies of land reform and pension bills, while enormously important, are beyond the grasp of the vast majority of Indian citizens.

But ordinary Indians understand and can empathize with the utter unfairness of a random citizen being hauled off to the police thana for just forwarding a cartoon or "liking" a status on Facebook. An ordinary person not only understands that but he also can easily see himself in that hapless offender's shoes. You or I might not exactly grasp how the Land Reform bill will affect our daily lives but we understand only too well how Section 66A could royally screw it up.

We have seen 66A in action. We know the names of the people whose lives have spiraled out of control thanks to it.

Shaheen Dada, Rinu Srinivasan, Ambikesh Mahapatra, Aseem Trivedi, Ravi Srinivasan, Kanwal Bharti. None of them were household names until they became unwitting Section 66A victims.

On the other side, almost invariably, there is a powerful politician whose ego was trampled on by the temerity of an ordinary citizen to speak her mind.

If there was every a gross example of a law that existed as the tool of the political bully it was Section 66A.

The BJP's great humiliation today is that it is paying the price for ignoring what it once knew all too well.

The IT cell of the BJP once compared Section 66A to the government's draconian measures during the Emergency. As opposition leader Arun Jaitley made a speech in the Rajya Sabha tearing into Section 66A after the government was revealed to have blocked almost 300 websites. "It would not even be desirable to (control technology)", Jaitley had said at that time. "If the Internet had been in existence the internal emergency of 1975 would have been a big fiasco."

Jaitley at that time had admitted that there was a danger that the Internet could become the hothouse of hate speech frenzy but argued that terms used in Section 66A like harmful, harassing, defamatory, blasphemous were "absolutely subjective." "Now there's information which my friends in the government might consider is very harmful to them but I might think it's my right to express that information," said Jaitley.

"But this was 'once upon a time'" writes Javed Anwer in the Daily O. "Now the BJP is in power and just like the government before it, even though the two governments supposedly differ on ideology like cheese and chalk, is finding Section 66A useful."

That's why the government's additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta did his best to defend the indefensible making comforting noises about "freedom of expression" but clearly unwilling to let go of the advantages of having Section66A in its kitty. And let's make no mistake, the vague wording of Section 66A is precisely what made it so useful to governments who wanted to crack down on dissent. Which right-thinking government would be willing to let go of that unbridled power to define to its own advantage what was offensive, defamatory or harmful?

So in effect the government ended up doing the same dance that Kapil Sibal had once done. Sibal had refused to change the wording of the act and instead suggested fresh guidelines would be issued to make it more difficult for police to arrest people for posts on social networking sites. Obviously that worked splendidly for the teenager recently arrested by the UP police at the behest of Azam Khan's office for sharing something defamatory about him on Facebook.

And now we have the current minister Ravi Shankar Prasad telling Times Now that his government had a clearly different stance on Section 66A than the previous one. "We were willing to come with further stringent rules, guidelines, regulations to prevent any further misuse," he said. Sorry, but that just sounds like Sibal-ese under another label.

The face is the Supreme Court just dealt the NDA a box of lemons and Ravi Shankar Prasad has the unhappy task of making lemonade out of it. The BJP stands revealed as yet another party that is happy to take up the cudgels for freedom of expression while in the opposition but then hem and haw about it as soon as it is in power.

It need not have been so.

It was not that long ago when Narendra Modi had changed his display picture on Twitter to a black box in support of many ordinary journalists who found their accounts blocked by the UPA government. Namita Bhandare wrote on NewsLaundry then that "if the battle for minds in the virtual world has begun, let it be said, Round One to Modi and the BJP." As #GOIBlocks trended, the social media-savvy Modi tweeted "As a common man, I join the protest against the crackdown on freedom of speech."

Now he is the Prime Minister and no longer the common man. And the Supreme Court has basically expressed no confidence in any political party's ability to truly prevent misuse of Section 66A. It's taken the government's toy away.

This could have been the BJP, arguably India's most Internet-savvy party's golden opportunity to have shown itself as a modern party that was truly different from the others when it came to freedom of expression and the Internet.

The Section 66A verdict was whopping victory for freedom of expression but a giant lost opportunity for the BJP. Once it had protested the "crackdown on freedom of speech". Now it finds itself shut out of the celebration.


Courtesy: PTI