In 2014, film director Ram Gopal Varma made fun of Lord Ganesha on Twitter, mocking his physical appearance and questioning his divine abilities. Needlessly to say, this riled some people up and one of them even went to the court.
Now two years later, a local magistrate in Mumbai has ordered Varma to appear in the court or respond to the complaint by July 19, reports the Press Trust of India. The judge cited section 295 (a) and 505 of IPC and 66 (A) of Information Technology Act, that was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of India in 2015, in his order.
Section 66(A) of Information Technology Act, 2008 is controversial because of its broadly worded language with expressions such as “grossly offensive,” “annoyance,” “inconvenience,”ill will.” Law enforcement authorities have often invoked it to muzzle any kind of offensive or dissenting voices, and critics say that it is against free speech.
In Varma’s case, the judge said in his order: “During inquiry, the police found that Varma had during Ganesh immersion in 2014 had commented about God Ganesh on Twitter which had tendency to outrage religious feelings of people,” the magistrate said in the order.
It’s strange to see the judge reference 66A when it has been declared unconstitutional, and the grounds for restrictions on free speech are clearly defined by the supreme Court:
Written words may be sent that may be purely in the realm of “discussion” or “advocacy” of a “particular point of view”. Further, the mere causing of annoyance, inconvenience, danger etc., or being grossly offensive or having a menacing character are not offences under the Penal Code at all. They may be ingredients of certain offences under the Penal Code but are not offences in themselves.
This leads us to a discussion of what is the content of the expression “freedom of speech and expression”. There are three concepts which are fundamental in understanding the reach of this most basic of human rights. The first is discussion, the second is advocacy, and the third is incitement. Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of Article 19(1)(a). It is only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement that Article 19(2) kicks in. It is at this stage that a law may be made curtailing the speech or expression that leads inexorably to or tends to cause public disorder or tends to cause or tends to affect the sovereignty & integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, etc.
To be sure, this is not the first time that Section 66A has been invoked by law enforcement officials after it was revoked. In April 2015, police in Thane filed a FIR against a Facebook user for allegedly posting unsavoury comments about prime minister Narendra Modi.
What’s even more worrying that the government is reportedly trying to bring back Section 66A albeit in a milder form to combat incitement of terror on social media. Officials told The Economic Times in February 2016 that the clauses will be specific, unambiguous and clear.
Read our coverage of Section 66A here.
Image credit: Flickr user Cory Doctorow under CCBY 2.0