Freedom of Expression

After Its Silence on Jaya’s Health Fans Rumours, State Arrests Those Speculating on Social Media

Over 40 people have been charged and seven held, so far, for their social media posts and messages on the chief minister’s health.

Jayalalithaa. Credit: PTI

Jayalalithaa. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Three worrying, and related, developments have hit Tamil Nadu. As if the intrigue surrounding the sudden and prolonged illness of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa was not enough to unnerve people in the state, the police there has resorted to large-scale registration of cases against those raising the issue on social media. While over 40 people have been booked so far, seven have also been arrested and sent behind bars for allegedly trying to cause fear or alarm in public through their social media posts.

To top it all, an even more dangerous trend has emerged. Many of these cases are being registered on the complaints of party workers. The sections under which the accused are being booked are also quite harsh and invite imprisonment for upto seven years.

To prevent people from raising issues about the health of Jayalalithaa over social media, the state police has booked most of them under various sections of the Indian Penal Code for “spreading rumours with intent to cause riot, creating panic among general public, causing disturbance to public order and for creating hatred between two groups,” police said, adding that “they were remanded to custody.”

The first of the cases was registered against a popular social media personality Tamizachi, who apparently lives abroad. She was charged under three serious sections of the IPC – 153 or “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot”, 505 (1) that deals with “whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statements, rumour or reports” and 505 (1) (b) that seeks punishment for “intent to cause or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public”.

In Tamizachi’s case, it was the Chennai police that initiated action on a complaint by the AIADMK IT wing, which had accused the social media user of spreading rumours about Jayalalithaa’s health.

Among other things, Tamizachi had written on her Facebook wall on September 29 that she had come to learn from reliable sources that the chief minister had passed away two days ago. She had also written about a conspiracy theory stating that some radical outfits wanted to start communal riots in the state.

While Tamizachi, according to some, may have transcended some limits, the same cannot be said for all the others booked for posting information or rumours about Jayalalithaa’s health.

As per the latest count, the numbers have been rising rapidly, especially as there has been little official news flow on Jayalalithaa’s health over the past week. The cases being reported from some parts of the state are also more than the rest. Coimbatore, which has a history of riots, has emerged as a hotbed of action against alleged rumour mongers. The police here have booked a large number of people for posting or sharing information on the chief minister’s health. In one such action, police even booked two bank officials for mocking her health condition after acquiring information on it from a party worker.

Most of the cases registered in Coimbatore invoke sections pertaining to spreading rumours and creating enmity between groups.

Also, one of these cases has acquired political overtones as it was registered against the Pollachi municipality DMK councillor, Navaneethakrishnan, on the complaint of AIADMK’s municipality chairman V. Krishnakumar who claimed that the former had mocked the chief minister’s health.

On Krishnakumar’s complaint, a total of 22 people were booked for promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language etc., and committing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony and for publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report with an intent to cause a riot, create panic among the general public and cause disturbances to public order.

Meanwhile, AIADMK has also launched a campaign to stop all rumours surrounding Jayalalithaa’s health on social media.

Police action in the state is the first such coordinated move since the 2012 exodus of people from the northeast from southern states after rumours spread through social media and SMSes that they may be targeted in view of the violence against minorities in southern Assam.

With the rumours triggering an exodus of nearly 12,000 people from the northeast from Bangalore alone, the Karnataka police had clamped down hard against people spreading these messages and arrested several persons. Apart from tracking these messages being circulated via SMS and MMS, the police had also taken note of emails and postings on social media.

Incidentally, when people from the northeast were fleeing from Tamil  Nadu, Jayalalithaa had called upon them to give up any apprehension about their safety due to the happenings in Assam. Tamil Nadu has always been peaceful, she had said, adding that her government would ensure that people from all parts of India living in the state do not face any difficulty.

The lack of information and reassurances from the state this time, though, has been one of the reasons why the rumour mill has been on overdrive.