On Monday, October 30, a 19-year-old man, Thirumurugan, was arrested in Tamil Nadu for allegedly posting “abusive” and “obscene” comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Facebook.
Thirumurugan was arrested following a complaint by a BJP district secretary, K Marimuthu. It has now come to light that the arrest was made based on a private chat between Thirumurugan and Marimuthu.
“Both were Facebook friends. When Marimuthu sent Thirumurugan a meme on Facebook Messenger criticising Vijay’s controversial dialogues in the movie Mersal, Thirumurugan used filthy language in his reply referring to the PM. The conversation in English was photographed by Marimuthu and filed as a complaint,” Virudhunagar SP M Rajarajan said, reported The Indian Express.
Actor Vijay starrer Tamil movie Mersal has been surrounded by controversies since before its release for having dialogues criticising the Modi government’s policies.
Thirumurugan, a Vijay fan, admitted that he made abusive comments in his conversation with Marimuthu, Rajarajan said. “He has been booked under charges including Section 67 of the IT Act, 2000 and Section 505 (public mischief) of IPC.” Thirumurugan was sent to jail in Melur for adolescent offenders in the 18-22 age group.
The Logical Indian take
The teenager was arrested for making remarks on the Prime Minister on a personal chat (more importantly, it is his right to make comments on the PM or anyone else even publicly on the internet). If this doesn’t sound absurd (and scary), we lack the necessary regard for personal liberty and its importance in the free world.
Thirumurugan has been booked under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act that punishes people for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form. The law talks about “lascivious” and “prurient” material or such content which might deprave or corrupt any person who is likely to find out (read, hear or see) of its existence.
There are two main issues with Thirumurugan’s arrest under this Section. First, under what pretext was his content obscene, lascivious or prurient? Second, whatever “abusive” language he might have used was in a personal chat which the PM would have never found out.
Therefore, his arrest under Section 67 of the IT is unjustified.
The other legislation that Thirumurugan was booked under was Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which deals with statements conducing to public mischief.
A person is arrested under this Section if he publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report which is likely to cause harm to any soldier or officer in Indian army, navy or air force; if his statement is likely to cause fear or alarm in the public whereby citizens may be induced to commit any offence against the State or public peace; if his statement is against any class or community, promoting hatred, enmity or ill-will; or if his statement is made in a place of worship.
Thirumurugan’s content doesn’t come under the purview of any of the above provisions of the Act. PM Modi is not a military man; Thirumurugan’s content was made in a personal chat so it could not have possibly caused any public harm and neither was it against any class or community.
Therefore, his arrest under Section 505 of the IPC is unjustified.
Apart from being immediately released, Thirumurugan should be compensated for the harassment he is being put through.
Another aspect of utmost importance is that Thirumurugan’s arrest would have still been unjustified had he made the comments publicly on Facebook.
Section 67 of the IT Act is a draconian law that needs to have the same fate as Section 66A. However, instead of scrapping it off, the government is actually planning to bring back Section 66A which was deemed unconstitutional by Supreme Court in 2015.
Section 67 gives immense power to the government or anyone in a position of influence to curb criticism. It is against the common man’s interests. Its usage of terms “obscene”, “lascivious”, “prurient”, “with an intent to cause harm” is vague. It gives the government complete impunity to disregard what it constitutes a threat to its rule. Time and again, the Section has been used by political leaders to curb free speech on the Internet.
Our freedom of expression comes with the license to offend. This is the sole way a democracy can function – when all opinions, even if distasteful for some, are given a platform to be expressed. There will always be an urge to shut out opinions that are against those in power, for them to stay in power.
A law is meant to safeguard citizens and the country, not the government. It is when we understand this, the debate on free speech will be in our favour.