In a bemusing revelation, at least 799 cases are still pending against people under the scrapped Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. It will be recalled that Sec 66A was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015. But the findings published by digital advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation in collaboration with Civic Data Lab, covering 11 states, show that 1,307 cases were registered even after the apex court declared the law unconstitutional. Sec 66A was found to be an impediment to free speech – and therefore against the right to freedom of expression – as it penalised offensive messages online while failing to define offensiveness. This led to widespread misuse, with police booking people for criticising those in political authority.
That the police continue to apply the statute despite it being nullified by the apex court shows legal illiteracy on the part of law enforcers. In fact, in order to please their political masters the police often blindly take recourse to draconian provisions without realising their validity or scope. In the same vein as Sec 66A, the police have also been guilty of liberally using the draconian National Security Act and sedition charges to curb dissent and curry favour with ruling parties and social groups linked to them. This, despite SC guidelines protecting free speech against draconian legal provisions.
The solution lies in professionalising police forces and making them independent of political influence. Police reforms have been pending for ages, with appointments and transfers of officers still dictated by political preferences. In an effective democracy the police need to be a strong, independent institution. For inspiration, look to law enforcement in the US where those involved in the Capitol riot are being identified and arrested despite being supporters of President Donald Trump.