Two India women were arrested on Sunday for a Facebook post that criticized the shutdown in Mumbai for Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray's funeral. Now countless residents and officials are coming to the women's defense, saying there was no justification for the arrest.
The Facebook post said: "People like Bal Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a bandh for that." A friend "liked" the status update. Criticism was hardly something new for Thackeray and his supporters. Until he died of a heart attack on Saturday, Thackeray was one of India's most polarizing politicians. As leader of an influential right-wing Hindu nationalist party, Thackeray spurred praise and complaints wherever he went.
Nevertheless, Shaheen Dhada and her friend Renu Srinivasan were arrested soon after voicing what many people were thinking. The police said the two women were taken into custody under section 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code that punishes statements "creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes." The punishment for each count is three years imprisonment.
The women retracted the comment and apologized, but Thackeray supporters still ransacked an orthopedic clinic run by Dhada's uncle. Outrage has ensued. Former Supreme Court Judge Justice Markandey Katju strongly condemned the arrest of the young women from Palghar. "To my mind it is absurd to say that protesting against a bandh hurts religious sentiments," he said. "Under Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution freedom of speech is a guaranteed fundamental right. We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act since under sections 341 and 342 it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime."
Many Times of India readers agreed: "Beware, friends, Writing in these columns might also be dangerous with the likes of Prithvi Raj Chauhan and the police goons around," one wrote on the site.
Another added: "Actually, it was the complaint, the police action and the arrest of the girl which caused communal disharmony, not otherwise. The complainant, the Superintendent of police , and the SHO responsible for the incident should be booked. We, the readers should join together to force the matter. This is a direct attack on the democratic rights of the people The Supreme Court should take suo motu cognizance of the matter and take stringent action against the culprits."
Two others applauded Justice Katju for coming to the women's defense: "This is a democratic country and people has the right to express their statements. What Justice Katju has done, should have been supported across the whole nation. Phew ...... Our country is in a terrible condition."
Shalini agreed: "Bravo Justice Katju !!!! Thank God, we have at least one gutsy person in our system of Governance. It is indeed condemnable to arrest any citizen who's peacefully expressing his/her views."
The question now is whether the police will reverse course - and, if so, how soon.