The Supreme Court on Monday expressed shock and displeasure on being told that over 1,000 cases had been filed under Section 66A of the IT Act – a controversial law that allowed police to arrest people for posting “offensive” content online – since it was struck down seven years ago.
Sec 66A was scrapped by the top court on March 24, 2015, in a landmark judgement; the court described the now-defunct law as “vague”, “unconstitutional” and a “violation of free speech”.
“It is shocking. We will issue notice,” a three-member bench of Justices R Nariman, KM Joseph and BR Gavai said. Justice Nariman added: “Amazing. What is going on is terrible.”
The court has sought a response from the centre in two weeks’ time.
The court was hearing a plea by an NGO – the People Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) – seeking directions to the centre to advise all police stations against registering FIRs under this law.
Appearing for the petitioner, senior advocate Sanjay Parikh told the court “please look at how cases have increased… people are suffering”, and urged it to direct the centre to collect all data on FIRs and active investigations under this scrapped law, as well as cases still pending in courts.
Mr Parikh said that prior to the scrapping of Sec 66A there were 229 cases in 11 states.
Since then, he told the court, that number has risen to 1,307, of which 570 are still pending.
Responding on behalf of the centre, Attorney General KK Venugopal pointed out:
“Even if it is struck down by the Division Bench, Section 66A is still there. When the police has to register a case it is still there… only a footnote that the Supreme Court has struck it down. There has to be a bracket in 66A with words ‘struck down’.”
Sec 66A was struck down on March 24, 2015, after it was first challenged by a law student named Shreya Singhal.
This was after two young women were arrested in Mumbai in 2012 for posting comments critical of the total shutdown in the city after the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.
“Nobody should have fear of putting up something because of the fear of going to prison,” Ms Singhal said, adding hate speech could be dealt with under other laws that govern the internet.
The contention by most of the petitioners was that Section 66A is vague and allows the police arbitrary interpretation and misuse of the law.
The previous government, headed by the Congress, said that the law was necessary to combat abuse and defamation on the internet. The BJP government also defended the law in court.
Section 66A read: “Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.”
With inputs from NDTV