Briefly recapitulating the sequence of events leading to the arrest of two teenage girls for messages posted on the Internet will help us appreciate the enormity of the incident. One girl, Shaheen Dhada, on the day of late Balasaheb Thackeray’s funeral posted the following on the Facebook:
“Every day thousands of people die. But still the world moves on. Just due to one politician dead. A natural death. Every one just gone crazy. When was the last time did any one show some respect or even 2 mins for shahid Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we r free living Indians. Respect is earned, not just given. N definitely not forced.”
Shiv Sainiks within ten minutes of the posting phoned her and demanded she remove the post. She refused. They telephoned to complain to her uncle who runs a small hospital. The uncle prevailed over his niece. Within the next ten minutes she removed the post and offered the following apology on her Facebook:
“M sorry fr my last status… m feeling vry guilty… Me n my fmly fr my mistake…m really vry srry.. pls accept my apologies.. pls pls forgive me as sister…”
If for innocuous observations posted on the Internet teenage girls can be arrested and taken to the police station after dark, which is serious violation of rules, constitutional governance has broken down.
The Sainiks nevertheless filed a complaint with the police at the same time. After two hours a mob attacked and damaged her uncle’s hospital. A friend of Shaheen, Rini Srinivasan, meanwhile had posted her approval of Shaheen’s post on the Facebook. The police responding to the Sainiks’ complaint arrested both the girls. They were initially charged under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This Act is against those who outrage religious feeling and insult religion. Later the police changed the charge to Section 505(2) of IPC. This Act punishes those who circulate alarming news to promote hatred between any two groups on the basis of religion, race or domicile. After the girls were arrested and remanded in judicial custody, the court granted them bail. The police also charged unnamed persons for vandalizing the hospital owned by Dr. Dhada. Nobody has been identified or arrested.
This incident has aroused severe criticism by lawyers and jurists. Critics have demanded that the errant police should be punished. Chairman of the Indian Press Council Justice Markandey Katju has written to the Maharashtra Chief Minister demanding immediate and suitable action. He warned in his letter that if the CM did not act suitably legal consequences would follow. This is fine as far as it goes but things should go much, much farther if we seek genuine democracy in our nation. Consider the facts.
The fact that the police changed the charge for arrest indicates predetermined mala fide intent. That the actions of the girls violated no law becomes evident from the probe ordered and the explanation for the hasty police action sought by the Director General of the state police. Till the moment of writing no police official has been suspended despite such brazen violation of law. But the tardy official action is not the only cause for concern. The arrest of the girls and the non-arrest and non-identification of a single culprit who vandalized the hospital suggests complicity between the police and the Sainiks at worst, or a terrified response to the Sainiks by the police at best. It is surprising that the court immediately ordered bail but did not outright dismiss the police charge for being illegal. Justice Katju has warned of legal consequences. But what are the legal responsibilities that have been ignored at each level of the administration?
What happened was worse than what happened during the Emergency. During that dark time people knew that a fraudulent Emergency was destroying democracy. Today people seem unaware that a fraudulent democracy is destroying their liberty. The SHO is responsible for the police action against the girls and for the inaction against the goons who vandalized her uncle’s hospital. The police chief is responsible for the failure of immediate punitive action against the police personnel responsible for the action. The Maharashtra Home Minister is responsible for the delayed response by the police chief. The Chief Minister is responsible for the failure of his Home Minister to maintain constitutional governance. The Governor is responsible for not seeking immediate explanation from the CM for the breakdown of constitutional governance in the state. The Governor is in no way accountable to the Union Cabinet as has been clearly and unequivocally stated by the Supreme Court in a judgment. The Governor is accountable personally to the President of India.
The President is the sole office bearer in the nation under solemn oath to preserve and protect the Constitution and all laws of the land. The buck stops with the President. If for innocuous observations posted on the Internet teenage girls can be arrested and taken to the police station after dark, which is serious violation of rules, constitutional governance has broken down. The President should seek a report on the incident from the Governor. Even the absence of such a report from the Governor allows the President to invoke Article 356 of the Constitution which states: “If, the President on receipt of a report from the Governor or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may…” impose President’s rule in the State.
One asks: if for no crime committed teenage girls can be arrested to spend a night in jail because of mob pressure and police fright, does constitutional governance exist in the state? One asks: if the Chief Minister does not act, if the Governor does not act, is the President of India, charged with the sole responsibility to preserve and protect the law and constitution, performing his duty? The Governors of all states and the President of India are maintained at considerable cost by the tax-payers who pay for their keep. They are not appointed merely for ornamental purposes and for taking the salute on each Republic Day parade. They are ultimately the guardians of our democracy. And our democracy is visibly and painfully crumbling before their eyes. Should not the President act? The buck stops with President Mukherjee.