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Shreya Singhal on her fight for free speech online and what led to her petition against Sec 66A of IT Act

Apr 02, 2015 04:25 PM IST India India
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New Delhi: Shreya Singhal, 24-year-old, fought against the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which led to the Supreme Court scrapping the draconian law. The law student filed the petition against Section 66A after two girls from Palgarh in Maharashtra were arrested for a Facebook post after Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray's death.

Here is the full text of the interview:

IBNLive: We have seen many instances where people were jailed under Section 66A of the IT Act and the latest one being the class XI student who was jailed for posting against Uttar Pradesh Minister Azam Khan. Do you think the judgement scrapping it has come at a right time or should it have come earlier?

Shreya Singhal: Honestly, I do not think it should have gotten to the point where the courts have to intervene or where I have to file a petition. I think the legislators should have debated firstly. I think it has come at a good time for the nation because we just had you know the Internet is growing so fast and it so widely used by so many people. And you just need a smartphone, you don't need a computer and because of all of this, because so many people use it to express their views, I think its really important that it has come, at least its their in writing that freedom of speech extends to the Internet and you can't have this blanket provision that was so vague that essentially criminalise putting up anything on the Internet. It didn't criminalise an act or a crime or a specific thing. The fact that you put it on the Internet is essentially what it wanted to do because obviously someone out there will find what you put up annoying, grossly offensive or just doesn't like it. So you know I think it's really important it has come.

IBNLive: So when we talk of free speech we have recently seen Anushka Sharma being slammed on social media after India lost semi-finals to Australia. Do you think it is a misuse of free speech?

Shreya Singhal: See, they are entitled to their views. Everyone is entitled to their views. But the thing is you can't blame someone or someone's girlfriend or wife for the Indian Cricket team losing the match. I think, I don't agree with their views but they have the right to express their views but that doesn't mean that they should be jailed for it for up to 3 years which is what Section 66A did that if someone didn't like it, it didn't have to be Anushka Sharma, it doesn't have to be Indian Cricket team or Virat Kohli or anyone. I didn't like what they said but it doesn't give me the right to arrest someone for up to 3 years.

IBNLive: But it has gone to such an extent that people are abusing her. Do you think it is right?

Shreya Singhal: You will be abused but the thing is that you might hear the abuse because of the Internet but she has been abused regardless. You know the thing is just because on the Internet and the thing is that all of us get abuse on the Internet. I'm sure you as a journalist if you post a story on the Internet or an opinion on the Twitter, you must have faced a lot of backlash for any opinion that you post. My aunt is a journalist, I know for the fact that she does get a lot of flak for posting things. There a lot of people who are very abusive, who down right abuse her, its crass, it is very bad; but the thing is that to an extent you have to ignore it. It's their right to express their views - the good and the bad. You only exercise your right to free speech when your view is in the minority- yes- and in this case if it gets too much, there are laws. We do have laws, existing laws that if someone wants it, Anushka Sharma wants to use, she can use. There are existing laws already. I'm not saying that you should have no restrictions to free speech but the thing is that you know I think is stupid. I'm sure she knows this that she isn't the reason why we lost. So I think it's very childish of people to blame someone, I mean there are also looking for to blame, I guess that everyone is so into cricket in India that they have to find someone to blame if we lose a match but I mean I think the whole thing is ridiculous.

IBNLive: So, regarding the petition you filed, what led you file it?

Shreya Singhal: You know it was initially the two arrests in Palgarh in 2012 but just after that there were also two-three arrests of Professor in West Bengal, businessman in Pondicherry and the thing is that you saw what they were arrested for was shocking. They were just so like random comments they made. I didn't think they require someone to get arrested for. Like one of them has liked it and the other girl all she had done was question why Bombay was shut down after Bal Thackeray's death. This same can be said of TV channels and newspapers who showed pictures of Bombay completely shut, shops shut with their shutters down, you know it was like Bombay was deserted. So they were arrested for that and then I looked at the Section and Section 66A was so vague I mean basically the constituents of the crime under the Section that if it was annoying, something it was annoying, if it was grossly offensive, of menacing character - these words are so subjective firstly and they just as the judges pointed out they can't be defined. How can you define annoyance, it is such a subjective thing, how can you define grossly offensive, what is your bar in a society that is changing like ours. 20 years ago, if there was a kiss in Indian, in Bollywood movie, I mean 20 years ago they show it as two lovers going behind a chunni, now they are showing it. You see how are we have changed. What is grossly offensive, something that grossly offensive to me, may not be grossly offensive to you or annoying or of menacing character. You may not like it but it does not give someone the right to have you arrested for up to 3 years. That what was shocking, the fact that my friends could have been arrested, I could have been arrested, anyone who uses the Internet could have been arrested for doing anything. You know its not just social media, the Section dealt with, it dealt with anything on the Internet, it could have been a Whatsapp message, it could have been an e-mail, a blogpost, a review for a restaurant, you know anything on the Internet, a video, a picture, you know anything.

IBNLive: You filed petition in 2012 and it has been 3 years that the judgement came. What difficulties did you face in the journey?

Shreya Singhal: I think the difficult thing, you know, that we filed it and that arrests were still happening. Through these years, up until a few weeks ago when the UP arrest happened of the boy in UP, there were still arrests being made. That thing was really shocking. It was, I was just, you know, I was shocked that it was being misused. The Section unfortunately has never been used, it's always been misused. So that was really the biggest difficulty. The biggest thing that I thought that how can you, the litigation is pending, it is such a high-profile case, so many people are against it, so many people are talking about it, criticising it and yet people are still misusing it.

IBNLive: Your family has so many lawyers, your mother is a Supreme Court lawyer. Why did you not take her help in the case?

Shreya Singhal: You know, I mean, at the end of the day she is my mother. She is been my pillar of strength. She may not have helped me draft it but she been there everyday in court with me. She has been to all of the meetings, all of the conferences that we have had. She is really been my emotional support, my moral support. She may not be the one drafting the petition, but she has been there all the time.

IBNLive: You did not take her help in fighting the case.

Shreya Singhal: You know, I mean, its just Ninad Laud and Ranjita Rohatgi my lawyers. They have been I think I don't think I would have done it without them. Mumma has been another kind of help. She has been with me throughout, explaining things to me that I may not have understood even though I'm studying law. You know just the procedure, what to do, what is happening, she has helped me there. She may not have been my lawyer-lawyer but she was there.

IBNLive: Who were the people who helped you in filing the petition to fighting the case?

Shreya Singhal: So, Soli Sorabjee, who is the senior advocate at the Supreme Court and former Attorney General of India, argued the case and you know what I have to say about uncle Soli is that it's not just that he was the thing is that he has been an advocate of free speech. Half of the judgments we have cited, he had argued originally. So you know it's really I think his cause also the freedom of speech. It is just his cause and I'm so grateful to him, I can't thank him enough you know arguing this. It's really been. It wouldn't have happened without him. And of course there is Ninad Laud and Ranjhita Rohatgi who have been there, they have drafted the petition beautifully, you know, its just really be the strategies that they came out. Without them I don't think we would have won it.

IBNLive: You were studying Astrophysics in UK. What made you take law - was it the case or your family?

Shreya Singhal: Honestly, I think it was just me. I was in my gap year, I didn't know what to do. I was, you know, I'm very interested in Astrophysics but I think I just couldn't that for the rest of my life. I didn't myself doing that. And I think I was more of people's person. I was at the time of filing petition was applying to law schools in my gap year. So, you know, I mean I wanted to try it and I am really happy that I'm doing law because I'm finding it very interesting. So, it's a good change.

IBNLive: The case also helped you in taking the field - law?

Shreya Singhal: No, you know I mean, I have already made up my mind before. I think it was a happy co-incidence, I would say, for me and not for anyone who is arrested. I just find it really shocking what happened with the two girls and what did happen to everyone who is arrested under it. I mean there are only these 7-8 examples of arrest that are very popular, you know, but there have been hundreds of arrests under Section 66A but that can't be forgotten. No one should have gone to jail. That is the shocking part.

IBNLive: Which stream are you taking in law?

Shreya Singhal: I'm not sure. I mean it is such a diverse subject and as a counsel and as I have seen as my mother and the rest of my family, her friends and as lawyers they get different types of cases all the time so, different streams and stuffs. And I have only just started from slightly specialised field intellectual property or the companies act or stuff like that in college. I don't know I can't say what I want to do later on.

IBNLive: So you wanted to study law in India or abroad?

Shreya Singhal: I'm studying law in India just now but I want to do an LLM. So hopefully apply for that after I finish my LLB.

IBNLive: As you are studying law it's a remarkable achievement that the SC order has came. Is there any section or law that you want to be scrapped like Section 66A of the IT Act?

Shreya Singhal: I don't know if I'll do anything about it but I think that Section 377 is shocking, it's a human rights violation in India. It is shocking that we're voting against gay rights at the UN still. Till recently only we voted against gay rights and I think you are depriving so many people of their right to live with dignity, to live with someone they love, so I think that is absolutely. It's a crime, it's a criminal thing we are allowing in our country.

IBNLive: Can we see you filing a petition on Section 377?

Shreya Singhal: I don't know honestly but there is something going on in the court. So, I mean, I hope there is a good outcome to that because it's really. I mean the High Court order was brilliant. I think it's shocking to not be able to intimate with someone you love, it's a crime.

IBNLive: During the judgment, the Supreme Court also upheld Section 69A of the IT Act. Do you think the order was fair?

Shreya Singhal: I think I mean the distinction that I made in my mind on Section 69A and Section 66A is that Section 66A affected the individual. You know it affected anyone who used the Internet and that's why it was more shocking because anyone could have been jailed for it. As far as Section 69A, its banning of websites, it's just where the website is taken down. So I think there is a in the hierarchy of things Section 66A is more, it affects us more. So I think what was argued in court that a reason has to be given as to why the website is taken down or banned or anything. I agree to it. I mean the courts have upheld the Section but I do think that may be a explanation should be given as to why it was banned or taken down.

IBNLive: Recently we saw Nirbhaya documentary 'India's Daughter' being banned in India and we could not watch it. Do you think it's appropriate to ban certain things that people want to watch it?

Shreya Singhal: No, I think especially something like 'India's Daughter' or even the AIB Roast, I think that these two are things that you know. I'll take them separately. 'India's Daughter' it was a documentary. it was put up on the Internet, it was your choice to go and see it. You know you didn't have to see if you didn't like it or if you found something objectionable in it. And as to the whole controversy on whether the accused should have been interviewed or not, I think that is an. If rules weren't followed by jail warden or whatever for at the time when the documentary was being made, you can't prosecute them now if there were lapse in something then. So that's my thing, you are going and seeing it yourself because you want to see it.

And then with the AIB Roast it was a ticketed event firstly and secondly it was put up on the Internet and it's your choice again to see it. If you don't like it, then don't see it, change the website, watch something else on YouTube.

It's a people choice to watch and I think banning them was, personally I think, that was a ridiculous notion that to ban it. But see that comes under Section 69A and that wouldn't come under 66A. Section 66A was you would jail. And you know I think that especially in AIB Roast people who were made of they were there, they didn't have an objection to it, if they don't then why are you, why is your morality suddenly kicking up. You know you are fine watching them in a scripted kissing scene or something but you are not fine about them making fun, sexual innuendos or something, you are not fine with that. I mean that's really quite hypocritical.

IBNLive: But many websites have been blocked because of Section 69A?

Shreya Singhal: Our petition was only on Section 66A. We haven't done much research on Section 69A. I don't even know, I can't even give you a good answer as to why it should be banned, what is there but what I can say is the thing is that for the same thing people could have been arrested and that could have been a bigger crime to be arrested for it.

IBNLive: What was your parents reaction about the judgement and that you have filed a petition and you have won it?

Shreya Singhal: I was so ecstatic. I mean we found out the night before that the judgment was going to be pronounced in the morning. I was so nervous. I was just ecstatic afterwards. Half-an hour we were in court, I think it is quietest I have heard the court be. When they were pronouncing the judgement, it was pin drop silence in the court, they read out parts of the judgment and its a dream come true because in our petition we prayed for Section 66A to be struck down completely. No we didn't know if they would read it down with guidelines as what the state, Union, wanted or strike it down. I mean I'm so happy that it actually happened, what we wanted they have done it, they have struck it down in its entirety because it was unconstitutional, it was so grossly violative of our fundamental right of free speech. It really I mean it shocked the judges when I initially filed it and we mentioned it before then Chief Justice Altamas Kabir. He also said why did it take someone so long to file it, we wanted to take suo moto action. I think the courts were also outraged at that time as to why these arrests were happened.

IBNLive: So while you filed the petition and you mentioned the case of Palgarh girls were arrested. So were you in touch with them, contacted them regarding this?

Shreya Singhal: I haven't. I have not been in touch with them but I did get in touch with Rinu Srinivasan in the morning before the judgment was pronounced. We got her number. I think it's shocking that you have to see how she was affected. She had to drop out of college for one year, you know now I mean look at her how beautifully she is doing, just finished her audio engineering, she is going to intern in Chennai and to be an audio engineer with a production company and she is very happy. But the thing is that why she should have lost the one year of her life, why she should have been arrested at all. So I think that's the real shame. It has affected individuals. They were jailed because they expressed what they wanted, for sharing their view that they. I think that's what is shocking.

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