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Bhadra Sinha, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, January 11, 2013
The Centre has justified the controversial provision of Section 66A of the Information and Technology (IT) Act, which was used to arrest two girls from Palghar for posting and liking a comment on Facebook that questioned the shutdown in Mumbai following the death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray.

In its response to a public interest litigation (PIL) by a young law student, Shreya Singhal, challenging section 66A, the Information and Technology Ministry disagreed with the petitioner’s argument that the provision violated the freedom of speech and expression.

Singhal’s PIL cited the arrest of girls to support her argument to strike down section 66A of IT Act, stating that it is broadly worded. The section provides for up to three years in jail for sending ‘offensive’ or ‘annoying’ messages through a computer or any other communication device. SC had on November 30, 2012, issued a notice to Centre and state government on Singhal’s PIL. It had directed the state to explain why the two girls, Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan, were arrested.

Admitting the arrests were unjustified, the state government in its affidavit stated that it had taken a very serious view of the matter and suspended the officer who initiated action against the girls: “The government of Maharashtra respectfully submits that it is cognisant of the chilling effect that such incidents could create and has taken firm action in the matter.”

But the Centre’s affidavit defended the provision and said the legislative intent was to curb the menace of sending offensive messages. As far as the words used were concerned, it said they were taken from the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make it more broad-based, keeping in view the colour a communication might take.

The affidavit stated freedom of speech was subject to reasonable restriction and misuse of the law by a section of society cannot make it unconstitutional. It mentioned a government advisory issued on January 9 that bars arrest of a person under Section 66A without the approval of an officer above or at the rank of a deputy commissioner of police.