The arrest of two Indian women over a Facebook post has sparked outrage and calls for the charges against them to be dropped. On Monday, 21-year-old medical student Shaheen Dhada and her friend, 20-year-old Renu Srinivasan, were arrested on the charges of “promoting enmity between the classes” due to a Facebook post that criticized the shutdown of Mumbai following the death on Saturday of Hindu nationalist political leader Bal Thackeray.
Mumbai, India’s most populous city that is also a global financial capital and the center of the country’s movie industry, was effectively shut down for his funeral. Thackeray had been a controversial figure who had once praised Hitler and, in an official inquiry, was blamed for provoking riots in Mumbai that led to some 1,000 people (mostly Muslims) dying.
A Crackdown on Dissent in Democratic India?
On Sunday, Dhada posted “People like Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a ‘bandh’ [shutdown] for that” and Srinivasan “liked” it. Dhada also wrote that Mumbai was shutting down “due to fear, not due to respect” and pointed out that many who had been freedom fighters in winning independence for India had been forgotten.
Within hours, an official from Thackeray’s hard-line, right-wing Shiv Sena, a decades-long dominant force in Mumbai politics, had complained to the police that Dhada’s post was offensive and hateful. They contacted her physician uncle, Abdul Dhada, and said she must apologize. Dhada quickly posted an apology and closed her Facebook account. But not even an hour after the complaint had been filed, a mob of 400 to 500 people vandalized an orthopedic hospital belonging to her uncle; his lawyer says that the police simply failed to protect it.
“Shame: 2 girls arrested for harmless online comment” was the headline on a story in The Times of India about the two women’s arrest. Saying that the charges must be dropped and that a case of “wrongful arrest” must be filed against the police, the newspaper declared that “the girl was not slandering anybody, nor was she promoting hatred towards any community.”
Many have expressed anger about the two women’s arrests via social media. Criticism has also been centered on India’s Information Technology Act of 2008, which was revised after the terrorist attacks that year in Mumbai that left some 166 dead; the law now gives the government borader powers to fight cybercrime. As Pavan Duggal, a lawyer who specializes in internet law, says in the New York Times, the law is now so broad that authorities have been given “unbridled power” with judgments left to their “subjective discretion.”
Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal has said he was “deeply saddenly” by Dhada’s and Srinivasan’s arrests, noting that their Facebook interchange was “their point of view, and enforcement of these laws are not to ban people from expressing their views.” Press Council of India Chairman Markandey Katju, a former supreme court judge, expressed his outrage by stating that “We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship.”
Other Recent Arrests Over Free Speech In India
The arrests of the two women have occurred following a number of other cases that are being seen as tests to India’s commitment to freedom of speech. A teacher who had emailed a cartoon critical of a politician was arrested in West Bengal in April. In September, a Mumbai cartoonist was jailed for his anti-corruption drawings on sedition charges; these were later dropped. In October, a businessman in the southern Indian city of Pondicherry was arrested for a tweet in which he criticized the son of Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram.
Dhada and Srinivisan have both been released on bail and are awaiting a hearing in court. Both women have said they are in “shock” over what has happened and have also apologized. A Facebook page is gaining thousands of supporters for their case.
India is “often regarded as one of the world’s most freewheeling democracies, where citizens are forever voicing their opinions or participating in political protests,” says the New York Times. But the arrests of Dhada and Srinivisan, along with that of the three others, shows that not every Indian citizen can just say, write or post anything.
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