25 Mar 2015

Shreya Singhal: saviour of freedom of speech in India?

Law student Shreya Singhal wins her legal fight to scrap a draconian law threatening up to three years in prison for anyone who publishes information that annoys or inconveniences others.

Shreya Singhal

Since it was enacted in 2000, the controversial Information Technology Act, has been used by political parties to stifle criticism.

In 2008 it was amended to include Section 66(a), which stated that any person found sending information that was false, “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” could be punished.

Even ‘likes’ on Facebook were included in the law’s provisions.

Now India’s Supreme Court has scrapped it – causing the newspaper Firstpost to conclude that 24-year-old Shreya Singhal – the woman behind the law suit – had saved freedom of speech in India.

“The courts are the one place where every citizen can go,” said Shreya after the offending law was struck down. “If you say something in a newspaper or on TV, that’s fine, but if you say it on Facebook, you get arrested… I think there are so many people in India who are tech-savvy and very vocal about their views.”

Protest culture

Her campaign was triggered by an argument with her mother.

After Shreya returned to India, having completed a degree in astrophysics in the UK, she found out that two girls living near Mumbai had been arrested because of a Facebook post about the controversial late politician Bal Thackaray.

I hope this judgment is a call to others to take these battles on, because on good days, we win Karuna Nundy, case lawyer

Her outrage led to a heated debate at home, and her mother, herself a lawyer, challenged her to stop shouting and do something. So she did.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court judges found the law unconstitutional, saying it violated the right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Indian constitution.

Facebook and Twitter have been flooded with jubilant messages from academics, students and lawyers.

Rohit K. Dasgupta, a London-based Indian lecturer in global media and digital culture at Winchester School of Art said: “The digital is the new public sphere and has been where many young people myself included cut our activist teeth. This judgement will encourage more young people in India to shape and be at the forefront of the protest culture without fear of state repression.”

“It’s a relief that our constitution works well against such ridiculous assaults on free speech,” said Karuna Nundy, one of the lawyers who worked on the case. “Free speech is under threat globally – I hope this judgment is a call to others to take these battles on, because on good days, we win.”