The Bihar government has instructed its police departments to begin investigating criticism of the government, parliamentarians, legislators, and government officials, NDTV reported. The move to criminalise “insulting” criticism of a government will be the the first of its kind in the country, where in recent weeks state governments and police departments have been issuing notices to artists, film-markets comedians and regular citizens over what they consider objectionable content on social media.
“Reports keep coming to light that some individuals/organizations are making offensive/indecent comments on social media about honorable ministers, members of parliament, MLAs, and government officials,” Nayyar Hasnain Khan, Additional Director General of Police at Bihar’s Economic Offences Unit wrote in a letter to the state’s secretaries. “This is illegal and falls under the category of cybercrime,” Khan said.
“Criticism is healthy for democracy. But criticism must be constructive and the language used must fall within the norms of decency,” Jitendra Kumar, an Additional Director General of Police reportedly said.
The Bihar governments’ move represents a startling assault on freedom of expression principles. In fact, jurisprudence on free speech in India has clear guidelines on what kind of speech is protected and what isn’t. However, that has not stopped state governments and public officials to arrest citizens over social media posts in recent weeks and years. The scope of the language used in the letter could lead to widespread state action against online users.
The Kerala government recently withdrew a similar ordinance that authorized the police to act against “humiliating” content online after widespread political condemnation of the move.
Text of Bihar’s letter criminalizing criticism
Punjab Kesari obtained a copy of the January 21 letter, written in Hindi. Below is a translation by MediaNama.
Patna, Date: 21/01/2021
Nayyar Hasnain Khan
Additional Director General of Police
Economic Offences Unit
All Principal Secretaries/Secretaries to the Government
Subject: With regard to offensive comments about government officials made by unscrupulous individuals/organizations on social media
On the above subject, reports keep coming to light that some individuals/organizations are making offensive/indecent comments on social media about honorable ministers, members of parliament, MLAs, and government officials. This is illegal and falls under the category of cybercrime. Legal proceedings against such individuals and organizations is appropriate. It is worth noting that the Economic Offences Unit is also the nodal organization for cybercrime.
As such, upon cognizance of matters of this nature, you are requested to alert, and furnish detailed information thereof to, the Economic Offences Unit at Patna, so that after investigation, the Unit can take legal action against the [offending] individuals/organizations.
(Nayyar Hasnain Khan)