Arrests for Facebook comments spark outrage across India

November 21 2012: Except for a small lunatic fringe in the media, there has been outrage across India at the arrest in Mumbai of two young women following an innocuous comment about the shut down of Mumbai city following the death of Bal Thakeray, founder- leader of the Shiv Sena party. We bring you the key facts in a Times of India report, followed by extracts from and links to the editorials in leading Indian newspapers over the last two days:

Times of India
report November 20 2012 : Shame: 2 girls arrested for harmless online comment   By Sandhya Nair
MUMBAI: Even as the Mumbai police were earning praise for their deft handling of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's funeral, their compatriots in Palghar arrested two young women on Monday for an internet comment on the complete shutdown of the city. TOI had reported in its edition dated November 19, that Shiv Sainiks, angered by Shaheen Dhada's post on a social networking site, vandalized a hospital in Palghar owned by her uncle. However, none of the people who ransacked the hospital have been picked up so far.
The incident, coming as it does in the wake of several recent cases of action against academics, creative artists and laymen alike, highlights not only the prickliness of political parties in India but also the willingness of the police to jump the gun at the slightest pressure.
Police arrested Shaheen and her friend Rini Shrinivasan, who shared Shaheen's online post protesting the shutdown after Thackeray's death. Both got bail and left for an undisclosed location. The police said that the two, both 21, were summoned for questioning at 10pm on Sunday, but were unable to explain why the girls were called to the police station after sunset. However, Shaheen's family alleged that she and Rini were taken to the police station by angry Sena supporters on Sunday evening itself, and released only around 2.45am.  
Deccan Chronicle: Unfree on Facebook Police action in Mumbai against two girls for venting their feelings on Facebook about the city virtually shutting down in the wake of the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray is a knee-jerk reaction that was far too excessive. To use provisions of the Information Technology Act to tackle what was in effect an innocent comment on the way of life in a metropolis was harsh and unnecessary.
At a time when the law is doing its best to catch up with the complications of the Internet, too many users of social networking sites are seen getting into trouble over the posting of comments. While the laws of libel must surely apply to people who use microblogging sites like Twitter without quite understanding the implications of intruding into other people’s rights, penalising youngsters for a general social comment just goes to show how sensitive politicians and political parties are getting. The UK has shown how to deal with the increasing malicious use of the social media without taking away the right to freedom of speech. Where we seem to go wrong is to see official India react in only those situations that impinge on politicians. We suffer only because we live under a crushing VIP culture that shows no tolerance.    

Mint: Brute force in Mumbai
The Maharashtra government ought to be ashamed of itself. Rather than arrest the few dozen thugs who vandalized a doctor’s clinic because his niece questioned why the state had to shut down after the death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, the police arrested the girl. Worse, they also arrested another girl who “liked” her statement on Facebook.
Exercising the right to free speech, as enshrined in the Constitution, is one thing; deliberately setting out to provoke someone with an offensive comment, another; and using brute force to enforce a point of view, still another. A responsible government should come down hard on the third (using all the power at its disposal), seek legal recourse for the second, and ignore the first. But then, India has a long history of governments, both at the Centre and the states, kowtowing to fringe elements of all hues. It was, after all, the first country to ban The Satanic Verses.  
Times of India: Clear case of abuse of authority Arresting a person, and a 21-year-old at that, for expressing an opinion on an restricted-access social networking site is a clear case of abuse of authority. The girl was not slandering anybody, nor was she promoting hatred towards any community. She was merely expressing the view that there was no need for Mumbai to be shut down because a leader had died. Shiv Sainiks may not agree with this view, but what is the criminality involved in it? What is even more bizarre is that another girl was arrested merely for indicating that she agreed with her friend's views. Justice demands not only that charges be dropped against both girls, but that a case for wrongful arrest be registered against the policemen involved.  

Times of India: Liberty in Peril
Is India only a limited edition democracy? Where one law applies to politicians, and another to ordinary people? By arresting two girls for posting a political comment on a Facebook page — one of them merely for sharing the other's post — a terrible message is being sent to the country's citizens, most of all to its young people. At the same time we are used to the spectacle of politicians hurling abuse at one another, parliamentary or otherwise, in parliament or outside. Are there then two distinct standards of freedom of expression in the country — one for the privileged political elite, and another for common citizens?  

Deccan Herald: Silencing Opinion
The incident lays bare yet again the extreme intolerance of Shiv Sainiks. Mere questioning of their decision to shutdown Mumbai brought out the beast in them. If the Facebook posting irked them, they could have explained their decision in a counter-post. Instead, they resorted to intimidation, twisted the arms of the local police and had the girls arrested. They also went on to vandalise the clinic of an uncle of one of the girls. As reprehensible was the police’s capitulation to the Sainiks’ demand to arrest the girls on charges that were at best flimsy. The cops should have stood up to defend the girls’ right to freedom of speech; instead, they facilitated the Sainiks’ bullying behaviour.  
The Hindu: Unfriend the thought police
What stands out in this episode, and similar ones earlier, is the readiness of the police to make arbitrary arrests and cloak their censorial actions using a combination of Indian Penal Code sections that have no place in a free country, and the infamous Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which deals with offensive messages. It mattered little to them when using Section 505(2) of the IPC on promotion of hatred, ill-will or enmity, that their case grossly fails the test of mens rea, or intent. After all, what can be illegal about expressing an opinion about so public an event as the complete shutdown of the country’s financial capital?    
Business Standard: Absurd Arrests
The arrest of two women in Palghar (near Mumbai) for an innocuous Facebook status update is the latest indicator of an increasing intolerance of free speech, especially online. The state has also increased its surveillance. The focus on surveillance and censorship is evident not only in specific instances but also in the statistics. In February, the government said it taps 300 new phones on an average day. Google’s latest Transparency Report says India also generates the second-largest number of requests for content takedowns and information about user accounts. Between January 2012 and June 2012, India made 2,319 requests for user data from 3,467 accounts and 273 requests for takedowns. Googlecomplied with only 64 per cent of those requests, which means the rest did not meet legal standards, even under the provisions of Indian law  
Indian Express: Government AWOL
Reacting to the Facebook case, Kapil Sibal, minister for communications and IT, has suggested correctives in purely hypothetical terms. It is a Congress government, after all, that also rules Maharashtra. The Centre could start by nudging the state government to stop contemplating its navel and start protecting the rights of citizens. In Mumbai, the threat of violence has become a routinised feature of politics on the watch of the Congress-NCP. It is telling that neither the girls arrested for the Facebook post, nor their relations — one of whom had his property vandalised — wants to speak about the incident. It is the duty of the government to dispel this miasma of fear.