The Shreya Singhal Verdict: Consequences beyond Sec. 66A and the internet

In an insightful tweet, the renowned lawyer and former additional solicitor general, Indira Jaising tweeted “Shreya, this could only have been done by a below 30’s generation, congratulations for getting Sec. 66A struck down”. Apart from it being a generous compliment from a seasoned legal campaigner on various issues of public interest, Ms. Jasing’s statement raises interesting questions about the nature of the campaign and the legal case that saw the Supreme court striking down Sec. 66 of the IT Act. The campaign against 66A is not the first instance of individuals and organizations coming together to fight censorship in India, and yet it seems like it demonstrates a new kind of networked activism and mobilization around free speech issues.

We have had numerous campaigns in the past, and it is worth recalling them, but also to note the difference between them and the campaign against Sec. 66A. Lets consider for instance the experience of film censorship in India and the mobilization by documentary film makers. A Film maker like Anand Patwardhan have always taken a principled stand that he will make the kind of political films that he wants to, submit them for film certification and then challenge any cut demanded at the judiciary, and in that vein, he has successfully contributed to the development of jurisprudence of free speech, securing important decisions from the high court and the Supreme court which extend the permissible levels of  what may be expressed in documentary film. The decisions that he has secured for films like “Father, Son and Holy War”, “War and Peace” are as valuable a contribution to the annals of free speech jurisprudence as they are to the history of political documentary. It was however largely about an individual film maker and the struggles that he faced with his own films, but in 2004 we saw the coming together of the first significant collective effort at combatting film censorship. In the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, a number of film makers including Rakesh Sharma faced censorship with their films being refused censor certificates.

Apart from the official censorship that was taking place, there was also a backdoor censorship process that film makers took objection to. The Mumbai International Film Festival was accused of engaging in censorship through selection resulting in resignations by Girish Karnad (jury member) and RV Ramani (film-maker and member, organising committee). The festival also arbitrarily created a new rule that only films with censor certificates could be eligible to participate at MIFF. Many film makers decided to boycott the festival, many withdrew their films, and an alternative festival “VIKALP: Films for Freedom” was born. They organized the festival literally across the  street from where MIFF was being held. Vikalp then travelled to different cities including Bangalore where the festival was disrupted by members of the Bajrang Dal as well as representatives from the Censor Board. Vikalp also resulted in the creation of an online mailing group that continues to be active till today, and members of the network still screen documentary film across different cities.

So it seems like Vikalp may have been one of the first instances of a successful network that combatted censorship strategically using the internet to mobilize a succesful campaign, and there is much that present networks working on censorship can learn from the Vikalp campaign. But this brings us back to the statement made by Ms. Jaising. What is different about the campaign against Sec. 66A? My immediate hunch is that despite documentary film makers coming together, we have seen very little by way of collective legal strategies, whether in terms of revisiting the question of the constitutional validity of ore censorship of cinema (affirmed in the K A Abbas judgment), or even mounting counter challenges to specific acts of censorship (such as Doordarshan’s guidelines that they will not screen films which have an adult certificate even if they are award winning films). Members of Vikalp also organized various meetings and symposiums on censorship which saw the coming together of not just film makers but writers, artists and practitioners from theatre and other fields, but this did not translate into a nation wide campaign against censorship laws and the movements against censorship remained more or less segmented and focussed on their individual concerns. It may therefore be time to draw a few lessons from the campaign against Sec. 66A which was a campaign that was not framed according to the limited concerns of a professional class, but one that was centered around key moments such as the arrest of Aseem Trivedi or Shaheen Dhada.

The campaign was also clearly a creature of Web 2.0 both in terms of substantive content (since it was social media that was most affected by Sec. 66A), but also in terms of strategy (with much of the mobilizing and strategizing happening through social media). Individuals and organizations speed across different cities tracked, researched, and commented on Sec. 66A but it still needed someone to bell the cat, and all it took was a gutsy 21 year old law student Shreya Singhal, who in a conversation with her mother decided that this was an absurd law that had to be challenged. After the initial petition, others joined in through intervention petitions broadening the scope of and making it a  collective challenge. In some cases such as the PUCL petition the process of the research and strategizing itself was the result of collective deliberations over a period of time, often with people who rarely ever met face to face.

And when the verdict in the Shreya Singhal case was given, it was only appropriate there wasn’t an individual but a collective ownership of the campaign and the judgment itself. From all the individuals who suffered the consequences of Sec. 66A to the layers involved in the case to journalists and bloggers who assiduously tracked cases filed under Sec. 66A, this was a moment to celebrate the multiple authorship of a case and the immense significance it has on the future of  free speech in India. While the formal authorship of the  judgment will still go to Justices Rohinton Nariman and G. Chelameswar who authored the judgment, we must following Roland Barthes and Upendra Baxi move our understanding of rights from an authority to a readerly perspective, or I would suggest towards way is most appropriate in the world of Web.2.0, a process of multiple and collaborative authorship. The victory of the Shreya Singhal case is therefore not just of an individual petition or even of an individual provision or statute, it is also the success of a model of activism and political action, and one which provides a blueprint for future campaigns around all the other draconian monsters who still lurk around. And in the words borrowed from The Lord of the Rings,  “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for” and “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

Written by: Lawrence Liang.
Published on: 25 March 2015. First published in the DailyO