The Illusion of Freedom of Speech
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.
The Illusion of Freedom of Speech
- » Published on February 05, 2008
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