Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Drawing that line in the sands of the internet

The online space for expression is shrinking in the country across class and religion. We need to act now

Defence analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra, who was arrested for his alleged derogatory and objectionable comments on art and culture of Odisha, was finally released on bail on 7 December. Mitra had to spend 44 days in judicial custody—despite one of the most important aspects of the country’s criminal jurisprudence clearly stating that bail is the norm and jail the exception. No person deserves to be in jail for a joke, howsoever offensive.

Mitra received massive online support even from the least expected quarters because of several reasons. As he is relatively well known and belongs to a certain class, people related to him more. Being privileged in terms of having access to resources both legal and monetary, and presumably with a much better awareness of his own rights, people were shocked at how someone like him, and by extension someone who was one of them, could be put behind bars, and that too for so long.

While Mitra was eventually freed, a Mint piece published on the day of his release showed how the online space for expression is shrinking in the country across class and religion. The story tracked the lives of 10 men, out of more than 50 people across India who were arrested in 2017-18 for their social media posts. Of these, many were poor, illiterate, and first-time internet users; a substantial proportion was that of Muslims, and several didn’t have a lawyer, and were not even aware of the sections they were booked under.

So, while the victims of social media are spread across the political, economic and religious spectrum, the recourse is different for different people. Unlike many countries, for example the US, which has organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, India does not have an organized network to fight for the rights of the disadvantaged. The free legal aid that is offered is, in its present form, fraught with inefficiency mostly because the lawyers who get pulled in lack the monetary motivation to really fight the cases for their clients. So unless you manage to make a fuss in the right place at the right time and are connected well enough, your story gets lost in the larger scheme of things, and your destiny is put in the hands of a local thanedaar, who in all likelihood would be clueless about which section to arrest you under, and will hence just pick a vague provision of law and slap it on you. This is established by the fact that there are several instances when police across the country have charged people under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which was scrapped by the apex court way back in 2015, or slapped a sedition charge on a person with no real, serious case of advocacy of violence against the state.

So, while conversations on the need to change the law are right, the immediate concern is the need for sensitivity and reforms at the bottom of the criminal justice system. The judiciary eventually is just a reactive body and it can only do so much. Reforms cannot happen in the domain of the chief justice’s office and are of little use unless they are initiated in a dingy, nondescript police station somewhere far away from the national capital. Till then, the common people like these 10 and Iyer will have to almost like a worm navigate through the legal system hoping not to get squished in the process.

For a young country like India, where 65% of the population is 35 or under, and half the country’s population is under 25 years of age, these arrests set a wrong precedent, more so because more and more young people are entering the online space at a fast pace. In fact, in just the past year, the number of Indians with access to mobile internet shot up from 20% to 31%, according to a Lokniti-CSDS Mood of the Nation survey. And nearly half of India’s 18-25-year-olds are already on WhatsApp, and more than half of India’s Facebook users are below the age of 25. With such a dramatic rise in online users, the chances of offending and getting offended also rise at a similar pace.

Ahead of the 2019 general election, we expect social media to play a more important role in political outreach and campaigning. The problem in terms of the spread of fake news and also arrests such as these is only going to get worse. With such extreme steps taken by the government in response to people expressing their opinions, it is imperative for civil society and lawmakers to urgently defend free speech on the internet. A line must be quickly drawn in the sand. If not, internet users in the country will soon start resembling their counterparts in China or Russia.

Will the civil society and lawmakers defend free speech on the internet? Tell us at views@livemint.com

Close