New Delhi, June 16: Many Facebook and Twitter users are worried at what appears a sharp rise in police action against people deemed to have posted offensive material, most of it targeting Narendra Modi.
At least 18 persons have been arrested and another questioned in the month since the BJP won the general election, although 16 arrests in two cases in Kerala have bloated the figure.
Several people, preferring anonymity, told The Telegraph they feared for the future of free speech on the social media if the trend continued. “For such a social media savvy PM, his silence on these arrests is deafening,” said one.
All the arrests have come in Opposition-ruled states but most of the complaints came from people linked with the BJP or Hindutva groups.
Cyber law expert Prashant Mali suggested the police in these states could have been eager to “satisfy” a political force they deemed to be on the ascendant.
“It can put fear in people’s minds. Gradually, the social media may lose their sheen as facilitators of free speech,” he said.
Devu Chodankar, 31, was detained and questioned in BJP-ruled Goa last month for a post made in the run-up to the elections that was deemed anti-Modi. Author Amaresh Mishra was arrested in Uttar Pradesh on May 16 for a tweet, and MBA student Syed Waqas was held in Bangalore on May 24 for a post on instant-messaging site WhatsApp.
The charges ranged from provoking enmity and inciting riots to the IT Act’s controversial Section 66A, whose constitutionality has been challenged in the apex court.
Section 66A targets messages ranging from “grossly offensive” and “menacing” to those causing “annoyance”, and carries a maximum punishment of three years. It has been used to target a professor in Bengal over a cartoon on Mamata Banerjee to students in Navi Mumbai over a post relating to Bal Thackeray.
Mali, the cyber expert, acknowledged that some of the anti-Modi comments may have been extremely offensive, libellous or menacing. “Freedom of speech comes with riders. One can oppose Modi without using bad words.”
Some others mentioned another trend: of being abused and threatened by trolls from Modi supporters.
“I always expressed my anti-BJP stand freely, but now I think twice before posting or tweeting anything. The Modi bhakts even abuse my wife and children,” said a 32-year-old.
A pair of mock Facebook and Twitter accounts under the name “Norinder Mudi” has been buffeted by abuse from people who, according to the person behind them (who goes by the name of Swagmohan), “fail to understand the difference between a hate page and satire”.
“Ever since Modi has emerged victorious, there has been a lot of hate mail,” Swagmohan said.
K.M. Baharul Islam, an IIM Kashipur teacher researching the social media’s role in political protests, said he wasn’t surprised at the police crackdown on anti-Modi posts or fellow bloggers’ rain of abuse on those uploading them.
“This country is notorious for paying obeisance to powerful people. Laws get used in the process. On the other hand, one should understand that there is a thin line between freedom of speech and libel,” he said.
Yesterday, nine students of the Sree Krishna college in Thrissur, Kerala, were arrested after their campus magazine carried a crossword, allegedly using invectives to describe politicians such as Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor.
Last week, the principal of a polytechnic college in Thrissur and six others were arrested after Modi’s picture figured among an array of “negative faces” in the college magazine alongside Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden.
“Why can’t Modi issue a statement and stop all this?” asked a Facebook user, who claims to be dealing with at least 100 trolls per day from BJP supporters.
All the accused are on bail except Waqas, against whom the case has been dropped.