OPINION

The Illusion of Freedom of Speech

February 05, 2008
Ledzius

A 23-year old software engineer from Bangalore, Lakshmana Kailash K was picked up from Bangalore last August, taken all the way to Pune, and put behind bars on charges of having posted on Orkut insulting images of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Despite protesting that he did not know anything about it, he was taken to Pune and thrown into jail, where he spent 50 days with over 200 undertrial prisoners for an offence he did not commit. He was charged under Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code ('deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings'), and Section 67 of the IT Act (publishing 'lascivious material on the Internet'). As it turned out, the IP address was not his, but by the time the police confirmed this and acted on it, he had already spent 50 harrowing days in Yerwada Jail with hardened criminals, lathi beatings, and a bowl which he had to eat out of and use in the toilet as well. Lakshmana, who is currently with his family in Tamil Nadu, says his fight is not over yet. He has slapped a legal notice demanding Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) from Bharti Airtel and the Pune police. He said his arrest was based on the Internet Protocol address provided by the telecom service provider Bharti.

Lakshmana says that Bharti Airtel’s CEO in Bangalore, Prem Pradeep, did meet him once after the case was splashed in the media. Pradeep, while empathising with him, insisted that the police were to blame; however, Bharti wished to make amends by offering him a job at Airtel and psychological counselling to help him get over the experience. Lakshmana, turned down both offers and asked if there was any monetary input, to which Pradeep allegedly replied that “financical compensation was a different dimension altogether’’.

If what Lakshmana alleges is true, I have no respect for Airtel's management. Obviously for Airtel honcho, billionaire Sunil Mittal, paying out reparative financial compensation to a customer who had to endure beatings and degrading conditions due to the company's fault is too much of a corporate expense. This only characterizes Mittal as a complete jerk. I sincerely wish Sunil Mittal and Prem Pradeep undergo the same kind of treatment that Lakshmana underwent, if only for a day. And yes, let them be offered some "psychological counselling" at the end of it. But more importantly, I hope Lakshmana receives due compensation for his torment.

But there is a deeper issue here regarding freedom of expression which many people seem to have missed, and not highlighted enough even in many blogs. The whole controversy seemed to revolve around the wrong IP address provided by Airtel and Pune police's negligence in not making sure it was indeed Lakshmana's. In this debate, the nature of the "crime" itself had taken a backseat and hadn't been debated enough.

It seems that the Orkut posting of Chhatrapati Shivaji had caused a minor riot in Pune. So, instead of trying to quell the riot, the Pune police found a scapegoat in some kid in another state and charged him under Section 295A which deals with "deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs". Now, wait a second, how does insulting Chhatrapati Shivaji become "outraging religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs"? Shivaji was a Maratha emperor in recent history. He was a Hindu for sure, but does insulting him then make one guilty of "insulting religious beliefs"? Of course, he was a pride of Marathas and all that, but then doesn't some community or the other hold every king in reverence? If some people over-react to some silly profile on Orkut and start rioting, it is the duty of the police to deal with them and them alone. Even if it means a few deaths in police firing. Those bastards deserve to die anyway, and that would probably teach other goons a lesson that they cannot indiscriminately riot on the slightest pretext of some "hurt sentiments" and get away with it. (Look what's happening now with this Marati versus "North Indian" nonsense going on in Mumbai. Such lawbreakers should be dealt with in the most severe manner, a la Singapore. Instead we have the police harassing innocent people.)

It is plain disappointing that this aspect of the incident got entirely overlooked. Also I haven't heard anything in press reports about what happened to the other three kids who got picked up instead. Were they subjected to the same treatment as Lakshmana? Did they have access to a lawyer? Did they get released on bail? If we ignore these issues, we are party to this sorry state of affairs. Instead of filing PILs over "hurt sentiments", I think someone should file a PIL defending our freedom of speech and sue the Pune police department on behalf of Lakshmana as well as these three kids.

If we let the state get away with this outrage, then be prepared if your own kid gets arrested and gets beaten up in police custody because he had caricatured Shah Rukh Khan wearing a bra, and posted it on some social networking site, and which caused some of his fans to riot in Mumbai. Then you will realise the ramifications of not speaking out against this kind of state coercion today.

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#1
sm
February 5, 2008
08:37 AM

Extremely well said. This whole business of "hurting the sentiments of" x, y, z groups has to be eliminated from the laws.

The other bigger issue which you did not address, or seemed to address only in passing, is that of police torture and brutality. Why is it routine to beat prisoners, who have not even been tried, to establish their guilt or innocence? And even if they are guilty, and have been convicted, on what grounds can this type of torture be justified? Have the general public's sensibilities been completely blunted by repeated showings of police beatings in countless movies, and the macho posturings of the "heros" undergoing such treatment? Is it any wonder that the prisoners of such a system become "hardened"?

The whole Indian Penal Code was enacted by a colonial government for the purpose of suppressing and denying the citizens their due process rights. It has to be completely revamped to reflect the fact that India is now an independent democracy, where the government serves at the wishes of the people, and is removed by the same.

Does anyone know of any groups working towards this goal?

#2
PH
URL
February 6, 2008
01:49 PM

Ledzius,

Its doubly apalling: jailing a guy for an act he didn't commit, and punishing an act that couldn't ever be a crime!

Man, to think I could be in prison for the many moustaches and beards I gave ppl in history textbooks

#3
temporal
URL
February 6, 2008
02:13 PM

incompetence!

he better sue big time

and publicise!

#4
Man Singh
URL
February 6, 2008
02:40 PM

There are three issues here:

1. harrasment of an innocent citizen.

Indian police is still being run as per rules formed by East India Company to `rule' Indians.

The same mentality still prevails. Signature or Nehru replaced Mountbatten's and that's what we call freedom?

2. Banning ridiculing cartoons of Shivaji

Its wrong. there should be full freedom of expression. If Shivaji is hero he may be villan for others. But

If Government can ban salman Rushdie, if Governmmnet can ban tasleema nasreen, if Govern can ban `da Vinchi code' and if governtment can ban Mohammed's cartoons then what;s wrong in banning

3. Behaviour of Bharti telecom and sunil Mittal:

perhaps people are not aware that father of sunil Mittal `satpal Mittal' was a politicians of congress party. he made big money while in politics. when he saw congress declining started bussiness using his old contacts and today you see billionare sunil.

they are never professional bussiness groups like tata or infossys. They are politicians with a bussiness mask.

#5
Ledzius
February 6, 2008
11:51 PM

Man Singh: "If Government can ban salman Rushdie, if Governmmnet can ban tasleema nasreen, if Govern can ban `da Vinchi code' and if governtment can ban Mohammed's cartoons then what;s wrong in banning"

Man Singh, this is not just about "banning" Shivaji caricatures. Even conceding that the executive branch of the govt has the right to ban these because of local law and order issues, the kids could have got arrested only if they had violated *existing* provisions of the law.

Coming to the two specific sections under which they got arrested -

Section 295A of IPC - clearly deals with *religious* feelings. If the Maharashtra govt claims Shivaji is a religious figure, it is a lie.

Section 67 of the IT act (obscenity) - The case here is very weak. Apparently there was a caricature of Shivaji in a bra on some Orkut community. A woman shown without a bra is obscene. A man shown in a bra is funny but not obscene (think of how Chachi 420 got U certificate). On Orkut, there are plenty of instances of the former. How come the Pune police never got the people involved in those arrested?

I hope these kids hire someone like Ram Jethmalani (if they have not already done so) and sue the Pune police and Maharashtra govt big time.



#6
Ledzius
February 7, 2008
12:24 AM

Do you know that you could be arrested under Section 295A if you post Sardarji jokes online? And it is a *non-bailable* offence, it is punishable with up to three years of prison and may also include a fine.

I am thinking of arming myself with a semi automatic in case I get the midnight knock. I might die in the exchange, but I guess it is an honourable way to go, fighting state tyranny.

#7
temporal
URL
February 7, 2008
12:27 AM

really?

you tell me one and i will tell you a newfie joke:)

#8
blokesablogin
February 7, 2008
02:44 AM

I was shocked to read about this total disregard for basic human courtesy. I find myself unable to laugh at any joke right now. This is so insane- this ridiculous religious nonsense. It is getting worse, I find. I hope we find a wya to get people to become more rational and reasonable.

#9
PH
URL
February 7, 2008
11:13 AM

Ledzius,

Over at Indiauncut, I've already read about one gent being arrested for publishing Santa Banta jokes, and Ravi Shastri being sued bcos he publicly admitted to enjoying beef...

Sigh. Why have we bcome so touchy?

#10
Man Singh
URL
February 7, 2008
12:51 PM

Ledzius # 5

Bhai,

I raised 3 points in my post.

rest of two items are in full agreement what you said.

#11
Sujai
URL
February 7, 2008
02:25 PM

Ledzius:
Brought out good topics.

A shame that a person could be convicted on such 'crimes'. These laws - on offending sentiments - should be scrapped. They can misused so easily.

#12
Deepti Lamba
URL
February 7, 2008
02:29 PM

Its a crying shame that our country is run by thugs drunk on brutal power and money:(

#13
Man Singh
URL
February 7, 2008
03:00 PM

and who elected these rulers?

all of us?

Cream of the nation went to Engineering medicine management and IT.

Those left overs went to adminstrative services.

even further left overrs went to law and agriculture.

rest of the rest like laloos went to politics.

we enjoyed picnic on election day and useless Govinda defeated Brilliant Ram Naik

So kuch loha khota kuch luhar. let good people improve our participation in politics and rest will improve.

#14
Siva
February 12, 2008
10:54 AM

I am very sorry for Lakshamana. He was arrested for something which he did not do.
Even if he did that, I do not feel it is wrong.
What Raj and Uday are doing is wrong and they should be punished.

They are trying to deny my fundamental right. As an Indian i can go and work/live in any part of India (with exception of Kashmir)

Unfortunetly, We live in mobocracy not democracy.
Mob gets whatever they want.

My Advice to Lakhsmana is try to get a good lawyer and present your case before human rights and national media. Unless your case is in the radar no cares.

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