December 1, 2012

Following Facebook Controversy, India Discusses Hate Speech Laws

On November 18th, Mumbai was brought to a standstill as millions of mourners gathered in the city to attend the cremation of Bal Thackeray. A political figure with some hard-lined Hindu beliefs, Thackeray was a something of divisive character; A father figure to some, a violent riot leader to others. Thackeray was the leader of the Shiv Sena political party in India, a group who became violent against Mumbai’s Muslim community. In 1992 and ’93, Shiv Sena’s violence incited riots that killed 900 people.

As millions were mourning Thackeray’s death on November 18th, one Muslim girl from Palghar, more than 2 hours away from the madness, commented about the scene on Facebook.

“Every day thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. … Today, Mumbai shuts down out of fear, not out of respect.” Not long after Shaheen Dhada posted this on her Facebook, she received a phone call from a stranger asking her why she has posted the comment. She quickly deleted the post, but some of Thackeray’s followers had already seen her comments and formed a mob outside of Dhada’s uncle’s medical clinic. The police detained her friend, 21-year old  Rinu Srinivasan, who had liked the post. The two girls had to give a written apology before they could be released from the police station. Dhada and her family went home to hide, afraid another mob would form outside their home.

Now, India looks to amend their hate speech law following this controversy. Dhada was charged with violating a section of India’s new Information Technology Act, which also governs Facebook posts. Currently, this broad law prohibits speech that causes “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will.”

Under the new guidelines for this law, police will not be able to arrest anyone who has allegedly posted something controversial online.

“Any complaint about online content that is deemed offensive will now require scrutiny by senior police officers,” explained an unnamed  telecommunications ministry official, speaking to the AFP.

“The changes have been made with the backdrop of the recent case. We realized the law needs to be changed.”

Dhada’s father is likely a supporter of this new act. Speaking to NPR, Farooq Dhada said freedom of speech in India exists “only on paper.” No matter their religion, Mr. Dhada says he doubts any common Indian feels they can say what they want.

Neither Dhada nor Srinivasan will be charged or prosecuted following this controversy.

Dhada has said she’ll one day use Facebook again, but will always be very careful about what she says.

Srinivasan had deleted her Facebook account following this incident, but has since reactivated it and has begun interacting with her friends again. Rahul Srinivasan, Rinu’s brother, told the Times of India that she was hesitant at first, but has since begun reaching out to her friends and supporters.

“My sister is not comfortable talking about the incident. We want to avoid any more trouble. Though she had not done anything illegal or derogatory, she was made to feel like a criminal.”

Image Credit: yui / Shutterstock

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