India's growing community of Internet users are facing a crackdown from the government for speaking their minds. They are accused of scare-mongering and posing a threat to national security.
A day after the death of controversial Hindu nationalist politician Bal Thackeray last week, Shaheen Dhada, 21, wrote a status update on Facebook criticizing the lockdown in transport and services which had brought whole areas of Mumbai's to a grinding halt. Her friend Renu Srinivasan liked the comment.
The post was simple and to the point: "Every day thousands of people die. But still the world moves on. People like Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a 'bandh' [shutdown] for that."
The counter-attack was almost simultaneous. The medical student's remark drew strong reactions on the Net, the police came knocking and a 2,000-strong mob later vandalized her uncle's clinic. Following this, both Dhadha and Srinivasan were detained under the controversial Information Technology (IT) Act for 12 hours and later released on bail.
"I never expected this. Is India is a democratic nation? I didn't do anything wrong by sharing it (post). I am still to get over this and am dazed by the turn of events," Dhada told DW.
A warning to all
Barely had the dust settled on this unsavory episode when another case came to light where two airlines crew members, Mayank Mohan Sharma and K.V. J. Rao were arrested by the cyber crime cell of the Mumbai police in May 2012 for their Facebook comments.
The two reportedly spent 12 days in police custody and were then suspended by the national carrier, Air India.
"We decided to end our silence for the first time after the harassment we faced. The police came to our house after midnight. We came out to tell our plight to the world after the arrest of the Mumbai girls," Mayank told DW.
Their crime - The two were accused of allegedly sharing bawdy jokes about politicians, made derogatory comments against the prime minister and insulting the national flag in their Facebook posts.
Prior to this, in October, a businessman from the southern region of Puducherry was arrested for a tweet against Finance Minister P. Chidambaramħ son, Karti. He was released on bail but the charges are yet to be dropped against him.
The arrests and the subsequent outrage has undoubtedly reopened the debate on free speech and highlighted the tensions individuals face from authorities for airing their views on an Internet that is becoming increasingly policed.
Controversial clause needs removal
Earlier it was social networking sites that faced the wrath of authorities when they were instructed to remove derogatory content for allegedly webcasting objectionable material. But the crackdown against individuals is disturbing to many rights activists.
The outspoken chairman of the Press Council of India slammed the arrests: "We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact, the arrests themselves appear to be a criminal act, since ... it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime," said Markandey Katju Prasant Naidu, who is also an active blogger on social media news.
"I have the right to question a decision or share my thoughts which may not be liked by another group so does that mean I will be spending time in police custody. I do not support hate speech but then who draws the line?" Naidu queried.
The controversial clause of the IT Act states that a person will be punished for sending information on the internet that is rossly offensiver has a enacing character.
"'Grossly offensive or has menacing character are entirely subjective. Who are the police to decide? It will be a tool of harassment. Unless it is amended, every day there will be many committing offences in public life," Pavan Duggal, a cyber law expert told DW.
Following the uproar, Minister of Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal agreed that amendments would be needed to prevent misuse of the IT act. However, no deadline has been set which gives scope to the authorities using information on social networks to prosecute or persecute.