In the 2000s, when India entered its first steps into the world of computing, a law was passed to make sure that this formidable beast was tamed and used properly by its people. Subsequently, the IT Act of 2000 became the primary law of our land to deal with cybercrime and electronic commerce.
The same act has been in the news lately for a controversial section, named 66A which has been the subject of public discourse for well over a decade after its writing.
What exactly is 66A?
66A is a section in the IT Act that allows for the arrest and fining of any individual that is found to be –
‘sending offensive messages through communication service, etc. (Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device), information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character or which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device; or any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.’
The reason for its infamy comes from the case in 2015 Singhal v. Union of India, in which this section was appealed and deemed unconstitutional by Justice Chelameswar and Nariman for violating Article 19(1)(a) and not falling within the purview of its restriction listed in Article 19(2), also concluding that the section was too ‘vague’ and open to misinterpretation to remain in use or in law.
The case came about due to a PIL petition by Shreya Singhal, a law student who challenged the validity and constitutionality of the law after 2 women were charged under it for posting about their misgiving about the public holiday put in honor of a minister’s death on Facebook. Thus, bringing into light this section’s role in the current contemporary social climate. It’s easy now for us to complain and praise online, but we did so with most unknowing that any of their words, if deemed inflammatory or scandalous enough, could have booked them a 3-year stay in prison and a fine. Despite this win for our democracy in the form of striking this provision down, there seems to have been a catch.
Recent findings have shown that nearly 745 cases are either pending or active country-wide under this stricken-down provision. It has been reported that many police stations and even lower courts distributed all over the country are unaware that such a provision was taken down in a historic SC judgment that defended our fundamental right to speech.
So, why does any of this matter?
It undoubtedly raises questions about the credibility of the public institutions around us and reduces our trust in their functioning. But most importantly, it shows us that there is a need to stay aware of what our democracy is doing and how it’s progressing. No matter how ignorant we might want to be of it, as for now, it is a fact that we live in it. Knowing your environment might just save you a lot of pain and worry in the future. This could have been a blatant encroachment on your right to post freely. This might not seem like a big deal now, but perceptions change when the masses stop agreeing with the decisions of the decision-makers.
Thus, this brings to light our Achilles heel as a democracy i.e. the lack of transparency in the highest courts. Strides have been made to tackle the issue. With the inclusion of the highest judicial office in the land, the CJI, under the purview of the RTI being a recent significant step in the right direction, but that too has been shrouded in controversy over the recent amendment bill that allegedly encroached on its sovereignty. It can’t be said that the entire onus of transparency falls on the judiciary. Recent complaints on the lack of security and protection made by the CJI and Attorney-General after the demise of Jharkhand’s Judge Anand remind us that despite its glorious and indomitable exterior, the judiciary is still human and needs protection to fulfill its role as our democracy’s guardians. Achieving transparency is not an immediate result we will get to see, but whether it happens sooner or later is something we get to decide. Stay aware, so you can stay free.