While fringes go unpunished for announcing bounties on head, youth arrested for posting PM’s morphed image

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Haryana/Uttarkhand: In a strange scenario police of Haryana traveled two hundred and fifty odd kilometres, into another state Uttarakhand to bring an offender to the book. However, the brave Haryana police were not chasing any dreaded criminal but in reality, they were in pursuit of a mere 19 year-old tailor, Mohammad Shaqib. His heinous crime: sharing an “offensive and morphed” photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi via WhatsApp.

“I bought him the phone on loan. He is a child… how would he know what he shouldn’t be doing on his phone,” says Salim, father of Shaqib. (PTI images)

In a country where leaders and fringes  openly announce bounty on heads yet go unpunished, Shaqib was picked up on November 18 after Mukesh Kumar, a ‘BJP worker’ in Tohana, in Haryana’s Fatehabad district, complained about the photograph, reports Indian Express. The cops started from Tohana in Haryana’s Fatehabad district and picked up 19-year-old Shaqib from Aadulla village in Uttarakhand’s Vikasnagar, near Dehradun.

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He is now serving a 14-day judicial remand in Hisar jail. According to his mother, five months ago, Shaqib, 19, went without food for about six days, demanding that his parents buy him a smartphone.“Chhe din tak ek roti bhi nahi khaaee thi usne touchphone khareedne ki zid mein (He had gone without food for six days, insisting that we buy him a touchscreen phone),” says Shaqib’s mother Jule Khan, 45.

“Hamne loan lekar uske liye phone khareeda. Wo bachha hai. usko kya pata phone par kya nahi karna hai (I bought him the phone on loan. He is a child… how would he know what he shouldn’t be doing on his phone,” says Salim, speaking on the phone from Hisar, where he had gone to meet his son.

“He’s just a child and he has admitted to his crime. I am nervous. Haryana is new to me. I don’t know how I’ll get him out on bail,” says Salim. “Shaqib only got a phone four-five months ago, but he’s not educated enough to use it. He wouldn’t know how to morph images and then circulate it to people. He probably received the image on his phone and simply forwarded it. Even I receive objectionable material on WhatsApp, but I don’t send anyone to jail for it,” says Hasan, the neighbour.

While Neeraj Singh, Station House Officer (SHO) of Chilkana police station under which falls Khera Mewat, says Shaqib has “no previous criminal record”, Salim fears his son will have to live with “the tag of being a criminal”.

Shaqib has been booked under sections 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) and 67-A (publishing or transmitting material containing a sexually explicit act in electronic form) of the Information Technology Act, and Section 292A (putting into circulation a grossly indecent or scurrilous picture) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

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“The exact chain of events is not too clear, but I am guessing this involved the police asking people who sent them the message until they found the person they wanted to arrest,” says Alok Prasanna, Senior Resident Fellow and head of the Bengaluru office of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Instances of the police being hyperactive regarding complaints related to social media messages is becoming increasingly common, mostly when its against ruling government. Earlier this month Nayeem a youth from Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh was put in jail after a heated discussion with his friends on WhatsApp over India’s loss to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final.

“The Indian team deliberately lost that match as it was already fixed. The Indian team had taken money to lose this match,” he had said. In 2015, the controversial UPA-era section 66A of the IT Act was scrapped by the apex court. Still, freedom of expression continues to be muzzled. Like Nayeem, thousands have been arrested under Sec 66A even after it has been scrapped.

“The real problem was with the police and their absolutely unaccountable and arbitrary behaviour and FOE in India will remain restricted to the elites unless this changes,” Prasanna says. “The police system set up by the British has been neatly co-opted by the privileged classes in India to ensure no one questions their rule, which includes stomping out any dissenting voices.”

“I think the laws relating to criminal defamation and blasphemy (under the Indian Penal Code) need to be struck down, but like with Sec 66A of the IT Act, it will not have any impact on arrests such as these unless there is root and branch of reform of the police forces in India,” Prasanna adds.

These arrests send a chilling message and People would think twice before saying something even if it is in a ‘private’ message to a friend of theirs. This will just cause conversations and debates to be subdued and not a free-flowing one. Many critics claims that India, the largest democratic country in the world is heading towards autocratic and monarch system where ‘Freedom of Speech’ is being strangulated.

With PTI inputs

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