Sec 66A Repealed: Good Riddance to Bad RubbishA section that was recognized as draconian and ultra vires the Indian constitution by most people other than politicians of all hues has been declared Ã¢â¬ÅunconstitutionalÃ¢â¬Â by the Supreme Court. Sec 66A of the Information Technology Act has for long been used as a tool to harass ordinary citizens. The wording of the section had been so designed by the makers of the law that it was highly ambiguous, vague and open to umpteen interpretations by law enforcing agencies.
By Sunil Garodia
Recognizing this fact, the apex court was of the opinion that such a law constituted an assault on freedom of speech and expression. The court objected to two things. First, it said, the section was full of unreasonable and vague terms that required proper definition lest they be used as tools of harassment. Second, the provision to immediately arrest a person only on the basis of a complaint by the supposedly aggrieved party, without any enquiry or investigation into the nature of the charge, went against the tenets of fairness. Particularly offensive were the words Ã¢â¬ÅannoyingÃ¢â¬Â and Ã¢â¬Åinconvenient.Ã¢â¬Â Most politicians and celebrities would be annoyed or inconvenienced by anything that was less than adulatory Ã¢â¬" after all, everyone in India loves chamchas - so there was never any hope for a person with an alternative view under the repealed section.
This section is a prime example of how advances in technology confuse the legislature, resulting in responses that are designed to throttle ideas and free speech. One is of the view that the existing provisions of the CrPC are comprehensive enough to deal with anything that is not permitted as free speech and expression under Article 19 of the Indian constitution. The only requirement is to add the words Ã¢â¬Åanything disseminated in any way through electronic modeÃ¢â¬Â in the relevant sections of the CrPC.
The big difference then would be that there would be no immediate arrests. A complaint of vilification, causing enmity between communities or character assassination would be investigated by the police and due course of law would be followed, as is being done in cases of written or spoken hate speeches or defamation.
Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has said that the government will study the order and come up with a new section to deal with the offences that were dealt with under the impugned section. This again is a confused reaction. Of course, much cannot be expected from this government as it had defended the section till the last in Supreme Court saying that since the reach of the internet was infinitely greater than that of newspapers or journals, there had to be enhanced punishment for matter posted on social media, blogs and other websites.
Politicians and celebrities try to derive benefit from new technology by being net savvy and reaching out to the electorate and fans respectively through social media. But they have to learn to take the bad with the good. If they can boast of having a million followers on Twitter or Facebook, they have to take criticism on the sites in their stride. Of course, such criticism will have to be within the limits prescribed for free speech under Article 19. They already have recourse to very stringent sections under various laws if someone crosses that limit. There is no need to enact a new law to throttle free speech on the net. Activists will have to be vigilant lest the government brings back the section in a new avatar.