Justices Rohinton Nariman and Vineet Saran
Justices Rohinton Nariman and Vineet Saran

As arrests under defunct Section 66A continue, Supreme Court ensures strict action

Murali Krishnan

In a plea highlighting the continued use of the scrapped Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, the Supreme Court today expressed shock and sought the response of the Central government.

A Bench of Justices Rohinton Nariman and Vineet Saran heard the petitioner, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), before Justice Nariman remarked,

“We will take strict action.”

The Court then issued notice to the Centre and directed that it’s reply be filed within four weeks.

PUCL has stated in its plea that despite the clear and unequivocal holding of the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal, Section 66A of the IT Act continues to be applied in the legal system.

A recent working paper by the Internet Freedom Foundation demonstrates that pending prosecutions under Section 66A of the IT Act have not been terminated, and further that it continues to be invoked by police across India in First Information Reports registered after the judgment in Shreya Singhal.

The petition states that there are several quashing petitions filed before High Courts, from which it is apparent that trial courts and prosecutors are not actively implementing the decision of the Supreme Court, and the burden of terminating illegal prosecutions based on Section 66A of the IT Act is unfairly falling upon accused persons.

PUCL has submitted that the harm emanating from this state of affairs is enormous. Besides indicating disregard for the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the continued use of Section 66A of the IT Act is a direct violation of the fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the persons against whom the provision is invoked.

It has therefore prayed that a direction be issued to the Central government to ensure compliance with the judgment in Shreya Singhal by issuance of appropriate circulars / advisories addressed to the Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories, and the Director Generals of Police of all States and Union Territories.

In March 2015, a Bench of Justices J Chelameswar and Rohinton Nariman in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India struck down Section 66A of the IT Act as unconstitutional.

The draconian rule which was used to arrest citizens, non-citizens, and activists for their activities online, first reached the Apex Court in 2012, through a petition filed by law student Shreya Singhal. Aside from Section 66A, Section 69A and Intermediary guidelines made under Section 79 of the IT Act were also challenged.

In its 120-page judgment, the Court held that Section 66A is not saved by the reasonable restrictions enunciated under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution and is, therefore, violative of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a).

The Court also dealt at length with the vagueness of the language of Section 66A and held that the same renders the Section “unconstitutionally vague”. It also observed that the Section can have a “chilling effect” on free speech due to its vague expressions which can be subject to wide interpretation.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, there have been reports of police across the country arresting people under the now defunct provision. Recently, a Metropolitan Magistrate in Mumbai has issued process to film maker Ram Gopal Verma for an offence under Section 66A after the latter made some remarks against Lord Ganesh on Twitter.

Read the application and order below.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news