Irony just died a hundred times over in Uttar Pradesh.
A teenager found himself in police lock-up because of something he shared on Facebook. A post that was deemed “objectionable” about a provocative remark made by a politician, a remark that turned out to be “fake.” The complainant, an aide of the politician, said the youth’s comments could incite communal tensions and spoil peace and harmony.
The politician in question? The Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan.
Azam Khan has defended the case being filed against the teenager. Azam Khan has defended the case being filed against the teenager.
Yes, that same shrinking violet of Indian politics well-known for preserving communal peace and harmony thanks to quotable quotes like these.
“Hum kuttey ke bachhey hain. Aap bada bhai hai. Size badey hay. Yeh hi farak hai. (We are the children of dogs. You are the big brother. Just bigger in size. That’s the only difference.)”
“The peaks of Kargil were conquered not by a Hindu, but by Muslim soldiers.”
“There is only one Muslim minister in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet and he is not from this country, he is Kashmiri.”
Now Azam Khan is so offended by some Facebook post that the might of UP’s state machinery has been unleashed against an 18-year-old. The special branch of Rampur police swung into action and nabbed the youth from his home. A judicial magistrate sent him on a 14-day remand. He was charged under Section 66A of the IT Act, Section 153A for promoting enmity between groups on grounds or religion, race, Section 504 to provoke breach of peace and Section 505 or public mischief.
The boy was eventually released on two bail bonds of Rs 20,000 each. The Supreme Court has sought an explanation from the UP government about the circumstances of the arrest but Azam Khan is undeterred.
“A Class XII student made comments against me on FB. Law is enforced with strictness and he has been arrested within 24 hours,” Khan tells the media.
The 18-year-old’s real sin was he did not understand a simple lesson though it’s been underscored over and over again in India. Posting on Facebook can be dangerous to your health.
A tourism officer in Varanasi was arrested for uploading “objectionable” pictures of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav and Azam Khan on Facebook. Ambikesh Mahapatra, a Jadavpur University professor, was arrested in Kolkata for forwarding a cartoon about Mamata Banerjee. Two young women in Palghar, Maharashtra were arrested for comments on Facebook about the protests after the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Ravi Srinivasan was arrested by the Puducherry police for a tweet accusing Karti Chidambaram of corruption. Srinivasan had 16 followers at that time.
Each of these cases might have provoked an outcry and outrage but politicians have learned a different lesson—that Section 66A exists at their beck and call.
There’s nothing in Section 66A that’s specific to politicians, but politicians of all stripes have seized on it as the handy bully club to squelch all kinds of dissent from cartoons to abuse.
There’s that old saying jiski laathi uski bhains (whoever owns the big stick, owns the buffalo). For our politicians, Section 66A is the big stick. And the saying is even more appropriate when it comes to Azam Khan, who after all is also the politician who sent UP’s finest along with sniffer dogs to track down his missing buffaloes. The buffaloes were found but not before three policemen were removed for “dereliction of duty.” As Firstpost’s Lakshmi Chaudhry said in another context, “In India, the law isn’t an ass; it’s our dear netaji’s chaprasi.”
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens find little such protection on social media. If the police went after every Twitter troll for abusive comments with as much alacrity as they went after the youth in Rampur they would find little time to do anything else. When activist Kavita Krishnan was on an online chat discussing violence against women, she found herself threatened with rape repeatedly by someone using the handle RAPIST. No one rushed to file an FIR.
This Azam Khan case has just become the latest exhibit in the excesses of Section 66A. And while opposition parties in UP made this young man a cause celebre, when push comes to shove they are all on the same side. The Times of India writes in an editorial “If the NDA government has any intention at all of embracing PM Modi’s slogan of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, the first thing it should do is stop defending 66A and repeal it instead.”
That is likely to fall on deaf ears. A Congress leader garlanded the Rampur student and led him home in a grand procession but the Congress’ Kapil Sibal had once vigorously defended Section 66A. Now the BJP government is defending Section 66A in court. It suits all parties well to have Section 66A loaded and ready to fire at their whim.
But the larger issue beyond the vague subjective language of Section 66A is it shows nakedly the complete power imbalance in the system. Politicians like Sadhvi Rithambara and Azam Khan are happy to throw out all manner of intolerant statements in public. From kuttey ke bachhey to haramzaadon to calls for badla and rape and chopping off hands, Indian political discourse is littered with threats and slurs. Yet nothing happens to the politicians who spew the hate. The overworked Election Commission raps a few knuckles, bars a few people from campaigning for a little while and after that it’s business as usual. None of these politicians have been expelled by their parties.
In politics hate, especially the kind that polarizes electorates, actually can come with rewards. On Facebook however even forwarding an innocuous cartoon is like playing Russian roulette with 66A. It’s as if the political class cannot stomach the thought that the aam aadmi has any recourse to any megaphone through which it can dare to vent its ire.
There’s only one lesson to draw from the entire episode. Politicians can say what they want at an election rally but the public had better beware posting anything about them on social media.
That’s what’s truly rotten about this whole affair.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. A version of this story appeared on Firstpost.com.