x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Facebook arrests provoke outrage

Analysts and the media slam the Maharashtra state government for what they describe as a flagrant misuse of the law and an attempt to curb freedom of expression.

Shaheen Dhada, centre, and Renu Srinivas, both with their faces covered, were arrested over a Facebook post and a ‘like’.
Shaheen Dhada, centre, and Renu Srinivas, both with their faces covered, were arrested over a Facebook post and a ‘like’.

NEW DELHI // As India's financial capital shut down for the weekend funeral of a powerful politician linked to waves of mob violence, a woman posted on Facebook that the closures in Mumbai were "due to fear, not due to respect".

A friend of hers hit the "like" button.

For that, both women were arrested.

Analysts and the media slammed the Maharashtra state government yesterday for what they said was a flagrant misuse of the law and an attempt to curb freedom of expression. The arrests were seen as a move by police to prevent any outbreak of violence by supporters of Bal Thackeray, a powerful Hindu fundamentalist politician who died on Saturday.

"We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship," Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court justice who now heads the Press Council of India, wrote in a protest letter to the chief minister of Maharashtra.

Mr Katju demanded that the state government suspend the police officers who had ordered the arrests and prosecute them.

The women withdrew the comment and apologised, but angry Thackeray supporters ransacked an orthopaedic clinic run by the uncle of one of the women.

A lawyer representing the women, Sudheer Gupta, said police arrested them on Sunday, the day of the funeral, on charges of creating enmity and hatred. They were released on bail on Monday.

Shaheen Dhada, 21, who posted the comment appeared on television yesterday, her face covered by a scarf so that only her eyes were visible.

Clearly terrified by her arrest and the attack on her uncle's clinic, Ms Dhada told NDTV television she would never again make comments on a social networking site. Both women said they have deactivated their Facebook accounts.

Ms Dhada described her arrest as "unfair".

"It was not a crime," Renu Srinivas, Ms Dhada's friend who also was arrested, told NDTV.

Kapil Sibal, India's information technology minister, said he was "deeply saddened" by the arrests of the two women.

"Freedom of speech is a very important right, and we need to protect it," Mr Sibal said. He said the government would re-examine the laws governing information technology to prevent its misuse by the police.

"We want to make sure that this law is not meant to prevent people from stating their point of view on any issue," Mr Sibal said.

Shops and offices were closed on Sunday as more than 1.5 million people attended Thackeray's funeral.

He was never elected to office but was seen for decades as Mumbai's most powerful man. He created an army of supporters by weaving Hindu fundamentalism with ardent defence of Marathis, Mumbai's dominant ethnic group.

Thackeray founded his political party, the Shiv Sena - which means Shiva's Army - with the sole aim of keeping people who are not from Maharashtra out of the state and stemming the spread of Islam and western values.

Spurred by Thackeray's rabble-rousing speeches, his supporters routinely resorted to violence against Muslims and migrant workers who had come to Mumbai in search of work. He is among those blamed for a wave of religious violence in 1992 that left nearly 1,000 people dead in Mumbai alone.

Analysts say it was as sense of fear that kept millions of people off the streets of the bustling city on Sunday. Nearly 20,000 policemen patrolled the deserted streets, mainly because of the violent history of the Shiv Sena.

No violence occurred on Sunday. A day later, a relieved Mumbai police chief, Satyapal Singh, praised the "unexpectedly orderly behaviour" of Thackeray's supporters.

But the thuggish behaviour was in evidence on Monday when a mob of Thackeray's supporters stormed the orthopaedic clinic, destroying its operating rooms and much of its equipment. Nurses and patients fled but no one was hurt.

Yesterday, police said they had detained nine men for their involvement in the attack of the clinic. It was not immediately clear if the men belonged to the Shiv Sena.

The Mumbai arrests came barely two months after the Maharashtra police arrested a political cartoonist on sedition charges for drawings that mocked corruption in the Indian government. The charges were dropped and the cartoonist is out on bail. This year, a university professor was arrested in the state of West Bengal for forwarding an email cartoon that caricatured the chief minister there.