IT TOOK SIX YEARS after a law, that could only be termed draconian, was struck down for the Supreme Court to realise that the police were still using it with abandon. And it was only after the court expressed its outrage that the Centre wrote to all states that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act should not be used and cases already filed should be immediately withdrawn. In effect, people had been illegally put in prison for absurdities like making comments on social media posts. With Section 66A, sending information online that even “annoyed” or “inconvenienced” was enough for jail time up to three years. Since it is just about impossible to clearly define annoyance or inconvenience, anything can pass for it. It was hardly a surprise that the police and governments took to it with relish.
For example, in 2017, a youth from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh (UP) made a Facebook post about an Uttarakhand High Court order declaring the Ganga river as a living entity. He joked whether a criminal case should be filed against the river now if someone drowned in it. There were also posts he made against the UP chief minister. Section 66A sent him to jail for 42 days. This was two years after the law had ceased to exist. How is such a state of affairs even possible? Because even though we like to think of ourselves as a functional democracy driven by law and order, India operates in chaos. Everyone is constantly testing the limits of what he or she is not allowed to do.
The pat-ourselves-on-the back name for this phenomenon is called jugaad. Neither the police nor the politicians who they obey have inherent respect for the law. It is good so long as it is good for them. Or what holds them back is the fear of the consequences of flouting it. Laws like Section 66A don’t get abused from the start. It is a little by little advance. Until someone has come out with a full-fledged model of using it as a personal weapon and every other leader then only has to mimic it.
The check to this is the judiciary, but it has itself kept signalling that civil liberties is very low on its priorities. Only when the violations become so shameless that they are impossible to ignore does the judiciary, and only at the higher levels, feel compelled to stop them. But by then years pass by and there would be other sections that have raised their head. You can make a safe prediction that the manner in which the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is being freely applied to anyone and everyone, it too is going to be struck down or diluted at some point. Until then, good luck. UAPA also comes in the back of India’s experience with laws like TADA and POTA, where too national security became a synonym for personal interest.