Criminal Charges for Tweets in Mumbai a Throwback to 2012 Attack on Free Speech

Last week, two young professionals from Mumbai vented their anger against Narendra Modi and Devendra Fadnavis on social media. Both now have cases lodged against them.

Mumbai: On May 14, two young professionals from Mumbai, unknown to each other, posted their discontent against the ruling government on their respective profiles on social media. The content of their posts – bordering on the unsavoury, and, in one case, also abusive – reflected their frustration over the current state of affairs.

Soon after, a slew of responses from trolls followed, most of them abusive and threatening. And by end of the day, both had cases registered against them at the Juhu police station in Mumbai. One of them, Aniket Patil, a 25-year old travel agent working in the city was arrested and released on conditional bail three days later. The second person, Ram Subramanian, a 39-year old ad filmmaker was also booked and while he hasn’t been arrested, the police claims it is in the process of initiating criminal proceedings against him.

Ram Subramanian

The situation, the context, and even the immediate police response is a reprise of what happened to two young women in the state in 2012, prompting a national outcry.

The women, then 21, had faced very similar reactions from the police for a post one had written and another had liked, though the tone of the post was far less sharp. Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan were arrested after Shaheen posted a status update on Facebook on the day the Shiv Sena enforced a bandh following Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s funeral on November 18, 2012. Life in Mumbai, Thane, and Navi Mumbai came to a standstill. Dhada wrote that the city had shut down out of fear and not respect. Rinu was booked for merely clicking ‘like’ on the post. The families faced a severe backlash.

Dhada says that what Patil and Subramanian posted might have “harsh words” in them, but the police response was disproportionate, just like in her case in 2012.

In the most recent case, the police claims, Patil, while expressing his discontent against the BJP’s stand of supporting the disputed Nanar refinery project in Ratnagiri, had made “foul” statements. He had responded to one post on Facebook and his comment was against Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and his wife Amruta.

Similarly, Subramanian has targeted Fadnavis and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in several tweets over the past few months. While he took on their governments for several of its policies at the state and the Central level, some of his posts also hit out at them personally.

In its preliminary investigations, the police has found that the language used is “harsh and abusive.” The Juhu police has booked him for obscenity along with other sections of the Indian Penal Code for promoting or attempting to promote enmity on the grounds of religion, and also criminal intimidation and defamation. However, it is unclear if any religious allusions were made in their posts.

Shaheen Dhada

“But it is not like I was or these men were the first one to have criticised the state or its policy. It is actually not so much about what we write, but about who complained,” Dhada told The Wire from her residence in Palghar. She feels the moment a complaint is made by the supporters of the ruling regime, the police rushes to act upon it immediately. “Most times, there is no thought put into it. The police only want to quell any further tension and prove their allegiance to the ruling party.” 

Dhada’s reading of her incident and several others that followed later is that a combination of things plays a role in making someone an easy target.

“I was like a sitting duck. A woman and even worse, a Muslim woman. They were angered that a Muslim woman had shown courage to write against them so openly.”

The incident had left Dhada’s and Srinivasan’s family under constant threat and pressure. Her uncle, Dr Abdul Ghaffar Dhada was also caught up in the drama. A  mob ransacked his orthopaedic hospital. Her father, Mohammed Farooq Dhada,  says the family lived under constant threat and feared for Shaheen and Rinu’s safety. It took over a year for the case to be disposed of in the women’s favour and the officers involved to be suspended; after a legal challenge in Delhi, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66 A of the IT Act under which they were booked and termed it “unconstitutional”. 

Things have got back to normal now. Dhada continues to live with her family and Srinivasan is in Chennai pursuing her career in music.

Looking back at what the two women had to go through, Dhada says the idea was to only “terrorise” them. “Similar tactics are being used time and again,” she adds.

Subramanian agrees with this assessment. “By registering a case against me, the police are trying to send out a message to everyone with a dissenting voice,” he claims. Though Subramanian has not been summoned for inquiry so far, he says an FIR in most cases is enough to shut people down. Soon after the incident, Subramanian’s Twitter account was locked and he was not able to post anything further though he can read what comes in. “This, while I continue to be threatened and abused on social media,” he told The Wire.

Subramanian and Dhada differ on one point though. Dhada says even while taking a critical stand point, one should not be abusive and make personal comments. “It is unnecessary and takes your attention away from the issue at hand.”

But Subramanian feels he is responding to the government in the “language they understand the best”. “Look at the type of language the followers of the prime minister use. I realise I have used foul language at times. But it is only in response to the language they (BJP supporters) use.”

“There are open threats of murder and rape given online. You write one message and people come hunting for you. Most of these anonymous people run amok on social media and no one seems to be having a problem with this vitriol. But the moment you say anything about their bosses, they want criminal cases registered against you,” said Subramanian.

This is not the first time that Subramanian has been targeted. He was the brains behind the video of a Delhi University student and daughter of a slain army man Gurmehar Kaur talking about peace between India and Pakistan. “Along with Gurmehar, I was targeted too. Abuses were hurled and threats to life were given on social media platforms to both of us,” he said.

But the police case and the public outrage has not managed to dampen either of their spirits. Subramanian feels he is not wrong and will fight this case head on. Meanwhile, Dhada continues to voice her opinion on social media. “I do it even more sharply and openly now. They wanted to shut us down. It only made me more courageous. The trick is to not give in and continue voicing your opinion.”