New Delhi: Shreya Singhal, the 21-year-old girl from Delhi who on Thursday filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court calling Section 66(A) of the Information Technology (IT) Act unconstitutional, has been back home only a few months after three years studying in the UK.
Her move to take on the government over a piece of drafting that’s been criticized for being too sweeping and therefore draconian seems to have had an effect on the executive. The controversial section criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience” online.
Hours before the Supreme Court was to hear Singhal’s PIL seeking an amendment to the IT Act, the government moved to regulate the way in which the law should be applied.
Then, not only was the case taken up by chief justice Altamas Kabir’s court, he even wondered why nobody had so far challenged this particular provision of the IT Act.
That’s not bad going for someone looking to get into law school.
The government on Thursday tweaked India’s cyber law to make it tougher for citizens to be arrested for online comments that are deemed offensive after recent arrests came in for heavy criticism by Internet activists, the media and other groups.
Kabir asked that a copy of the petition be sent to attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati and to involve the state of Maharashtra in the matter. The court voiced concern over people being arrested for posting allegedly offensive messages on websites. That would include the two girls who posted on Facebook remarks about Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s funeral bringing Mumbai to a halt.
“I was a student rep, so I’m quite vocal about what my feelings are,” Singhal said. “Expressing your views is something everyone does every day. If this goes on, we will have a mute society.”
Singhal, an only child who studied at Vasant Valley school in Delhi, spent the past three years studying astrophysics at Bristol University in the UK. In July, she came back home for her gap year and to apply to law schools.
Her return coincided with several high-profile arrests of people for having caused offence by exercising their right to freedom of speech online. When cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai on 9 September, Singhal was shocked.
“I’m obsessed with reading the news,” she said in a telephone conversation. “So initially this case about the cartoonist caught my notice, but I thought it was a one-off.”
She took notice when a businessman in Puducherry was arrested for criticizing finance minister P. Chidambaram’s son Karti, and again last week when two girls near Mumbai were arrested for criticizing the shutdown in the city for Thackeray’s funeral.
“It really got me enraged,” she said. “The law was blatantly being misused. Section 66 is so vague in its definition of what goes on the Internet.”
Shreya said she and her mother were sitting in their south Delhi home and “having a heated discussion about it, and she said, ‘Why don’t you file a PIL then?’ ” So a week later, with help from a lawyer, Shreya did so.
This wasn’t how she had planned to spend her gap year, Shreya said. “I’ve been toying with the idea of law for a while and now I’m applying to law schools in India and the US. But I want to see what happens with this case. It could take weeks or months.” Whatever the outcome, the petition is unlikely to hurt her chances of a place at a law school.
Her mother Manali is a Supreme Court lawyer who has helped and encouraged her daughter all the way. Her own mother, Sunanda Bhandare, was a judge and inspired her to take up law.
“We have always been very vocal in our family and encouraged our kids to do things they believe in,” she said.
Daughter Shreya added, “The courts are the one place where every citizen can go. If you say something in a newspaper or on TV, that’s fine, but if you say it on Facebook, you get arrested... I think there are so many people in India who are tech-savvy and very vocal about their views. It’s a natural revolution.”
Although she’s articulate and confident in expressing her opinions, Singhal said she’s not an active Facebook user and isn’t on Twitter .