Why was an Indian man held for sending a tweet?

By Prasanto K RoyTechnology writer,

Ravi Srinivasan Ravi Srinivasan has refused to apologise for his tweet
  • 6 November 2012, BBC news

How can a virtually unknown Indian boost his Twitter following a hundred-fold overnight?

Ravi Srinivasan did it by becoming the first person in India to be arrested for a tweet. The 46-year-old runs a packaging business in the southern Indian city of Pondicherry.

On 20 October, he posted a tweet to his 16 followers saying that Karti Chidambaram, a politician belonging to India’s ruling Congress party and son of Finance Minister P Chidambaram, had “amassed more wealth than Vadra”.

He was alluding to Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, who was at the centre of a political row after allegations over his links with a top Indian property firm. Mr Vadra denies the charges.

Karti Chidambaram (@KartiPC) did not take the tweet in good humour and filed a police complaint on 29 October.

He later tweeted: “Free speech is subject to reasonable restrictions. I have a right to seek constitutional/legal remedies over defamatory/scurrilous tweets.”

Explosion of support

The police in Pondicherry acted with unusual speed.

They arrested Mr Srinivasan early next morning, charged him under Section 66A of India’s Information Technology [IT] Act, and demanded 15 days of police custody. Pondicherry’s chief judicial magistrate declined remand and granted bail.

There was an explosion of support for Mr Srinivasan, who refused to apologise. He became a hero on prime-time television. His Twitter following (@ravi_the_indian) grew from 16 to 2,300 in 48 hours.

Anti-corruption campaigners have questioned the motive of the police and the Congress party: Mr Srinivasan is a volunteer campaigner himself.

Karti ChidambaramKarti Chidambaram said ‘free speech is subject to reasonable restrictions’

Mr Srinivasan did make an unverified allegation. Mr Chidambaram could have used the libel and defamation laws. But India’s libel laws are complex. You have to prove that you were defamed.

The police action triggered concern about India’s increasing use of Section 66A of the IT Act of 2000, amended in 2008.

Section 66A is sweeping in its powers.

It can send you to jail for three years for sending an email or other electronic message that “causes annoyance or inconvenience”.

On the face of it, this protects citizens against online harassment.

In reality, the law is more often used by the state as a weapon against dissent. In each such case, police action has been swift and harsh.

In April, the West Bengal government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee used Section 66A against a teacher who had emailed to friends a cartoon that was mildly critical of her.

Police arrested the professor and his septuagenarian neighbour at midnight on 12 April, and kept them in “protective custody” for days.

In August, West Bengal’s Human Rights Commission asked the state government to take action against two police officers and pay compensation to the professor and his neighbour.

The arrest in Calcutta had triggered outrage in social media, and a wave of Mamata Banerjee jokes with an #arrestmenow tag on Twitter.

The arbitrariness of Section 66A was evident again – it didn’t matter if a cartoon had been published before, or who drew it. If you emailed it to friends, you could be charged under Section 66A and thrown into jail.

Sweeping powers

And there were other cases across India.

In the north Indian city of Chandigarh, 22-year-old Henna Bakshi’s SUV was stolen in August.

A month later, the police had still not registered a complaint. Frustrated, Ms Bakshi posted a strongly-worded note on the city police’s Facebook page in September.

The police slapped a case under section 66A on Ms Bakshi who, as a 10-year-old, had incidentally received a bravery award from India’s prime minister for fighting robbers and helping bust a gang.

The message to Indian citizens, say activists, is: Be afraid. Be very afraid of Section 66A of the IT Act: it can send you to jail for a careless comment.

Trinamool Congress party leader Mamata Banerjee Ms Banerjee’s government used the law against a teacher who emailed cartoons

The law is convenient, sweeping, and certain of hitting just about any target as long as there is authoritative backing.

There are very few examples of Section 66A being used fairly, to the end of justice.

One was the case of popular Tamil singer and entrepreneur Chinmayi Sripada, 28, who ignored years of “trolling” or online harassment.

Finally, on 18 October, she filed a police complaint following vulgar tweets.

The Chennai police registered a case under Section 66A, and Tamil Nadu’s Prevention of Harassment of Women law. An associate professor in a private fashion institute and a government employee were arrested.

Ms Chinmayi’s celebrity status helped. It is less likely that an ordinary citizen who is harassed online could persuade the police to file a case so easily.

On a TV news channel, Ravi Srinivasan said that a close relative who had his motorbike stolen a year ago was still trying to get the Pondicherry police to register a report.

And, interestingly, Section 66A has never been used against politicians.

Senior politician and Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy made stronger corruption allegations against Karti Chidambaram twice this year.

But no action was taken against Mr Swamy, who has now offered to help with Mr Srinivasan’s legal defence.

India needs to make Section 66A far more specific and transparent.

As long as this law remains so very loosely worded and sweeping in its powers, many fear it will remain a powerful weapon to manage dissent by the Indian state.

Prasanto K Roy (Twitter @prasanto) is editorial advisor at CyberMedia, a leading technology publishing group in India.