George Orwell would not have been surprised. Ironic, is it not, that the death of the man who is responsible for “hurting religious sentiments” and “creating ill-will towards classes” should lead to the arrest of two young women on those very charges? And their “crime”? A comment on Facebook on the day Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray was cremated saying that the death of a person should not lead to a bandh.
For making that comment, 21-year-old Shaheen Dhada from Palghar and her friend Renu, who “liked” her comment, were picked up by the local police, charged under Section 295 A of the IPC (later changed to Section 505(2) of IPC) and Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act. Even as the local police responded with unusual zeal to the complaint lodged by a Shiv Sainik, the latter’s brethren went about trashing the clinic of Shaheen’s uncle.
Since these developments, there has been outrage amongst netizens with scores of people re-posting Shaheen’s comment on their pages even though she has withdrawn it and apologised. Both girls have got bail and one has to wait and see whether the Maharashtra government will compel the police to withdraw the case just as they did in the sedition case filed against Lucknow-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi.
There are two separate issues that this incident highlights. One, what it says about the state of freedom of expression in an ostensibly free country. The IT Act has many loopholes and Section 66A in particular gives the police too much discretion. This is not the first time this provision in the law has been misused and will not be the last. It is essential that police are informed about the limits of the law and how and when to use their discretion when complaints are filed. If Shaheen is be arrested, then so should the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who have re-posted her statement. Is this what the government intended when it brought in the IT Act? If not, it must clarify.
Two, consider the actions of the local police in Palghar, or for that matter in Mumbai on matters where the Shiv Sena is involved. People have perhaps forgotten that the Srikrishna Commission, which inquired into the communal riots in Mumbai in 1992-93 came down heavily on the Mumbai police. It implicated specific policemen for being complicit with the Shiv Sena. It held their inaction in many instances responsible for the injury, death and destruction during the riots.
What the report revealed was something that had become common knowledge — that the rank and file of the police, particularly in Mumbai, was openly sympathetic to the Shiv Sena, identifying with its Marathi Manoos talk and its obvious anti-Muslim bias. As a result, time after time, when the Shiv Sena, and thereafter its breakaway Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, goes on the rampage, the police tend to sit on their hands. And if the Shiv Sena is miffed and demands the police act, the latter respond with alacrity.
Bal Thackeray is dead. But the culture of impunity that his brand of politics perpetrated in Mumbai is still alive. Shiv Sainiks have known under Thackeray’s leadership that you do not need to hold elected office to rule a state. You can get the police to follow your demands, you can get businesses to shut down, you can get workers to strike work and you can stop and start a buzzing metropolis at will. They have done it in the past. They did it again when their leader died. And they will continue to do so in the future. If the Maharashtra government fails to act in this case, it is basically telling the Shiv Sena: go ahead, Mumbai and Maharashtra is yours to take.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai