Mumbai: Sameet Thakkar, a Nagpur resident and a BJP sympathiser, was arrested earlier this week for the third time in 17 days over alleged offensive social media posts against Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and his son, state minister Aaditya Thackeray.
Thakkar is, however, not the first to have been arrested by the state police for alleged offensive online content. There have been several such arrests in the past under the Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government.
BJP leaders have severely criticised such police action, slamming it as a clamp down on freedom of expression.
However, not too long ago, it was the BJP that was on the receiving end of such criticism when the police in Maharashtra was registering cases and arresting people for posting “objectionable” social media posts against then CM Devendra Fadnavis and his government.
Before that, it was the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government that was doing the same.
Using police force to clamp down on alleged offensive content on social media has been a hallmark of all political dispensations in Maharashtra.
There have been at least 10 such cases, including five arrests, under the current MVA government, at least six cases during the previous BJP-Shiv Sena regime, and at least three under the Congress-NCP dispensation when social media was still a nascent phenomenon in the country.
Every political party has made justifications for such arrests or cases under its government, while slamming the rival party’s action when in opposition.
“While there hasn’t been a detailed study around this, a lot of such cases across the country are from Maharashtra… Politicians across the board have used the levers of the press, police and court to the extent they can,” Apar Gupta, lawyer and executive director of advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, told ThePrint.
Gupta’s foundation in August wrote to the Maharashtra government, suggesting that the state should constitute a committee under a retired Supreme Court judge to draft a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for police to handle cases about alleged sedition, hate speech, pornography, obscenity, and insult to women among others, based on judicial precedents.
“An SOP will bring a higher degree of objectivity and stop this kind of political interference in selective action. These kinds of cases are not conducive to the creativity and expression required by the industries housed in the state, especially Mumbai. The tendency to politically pick and choose which cases to act on should be minimised,” Gupta said.
Action under MVA government
Thakkar, who is followed on Twitter by many senior BJP leaders, including even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was first arrested last month by the Nagpur Police. Just as a city court granted him bail, police officials from Mumbai’s VP Road Police station arrested him on 2 November.
Then earlier this week, as Thakkar got bail in the case against him filed at the VP Road Police station, he was arrested again, this time by the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) cyber police.
The BJP sympathiser has multiple FIRs against him, including three filed by the Shiv Sena.
His latest arrest by the BKC Cyber Police is about one of his tweets in August, alleging that Aaditya Thackeray was involved in actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death.
Thakkar’s arrest last month and on 2 November were over his Twitter comments in the last week of June calling CM Thackeray a “modern day Aurangzeb”. He has also called Aaditya “Baby Penguin” and has also allegedly hurled abuses at women, politicians, and journalists, among others on the micro-blogging site.
Thakkar is, however, not the first against whom the police, under the MVA government, had taken action.
The first was Paresh Borse, a Navi Mumbai resident, who was arrested in April this year for allegedly posting an image on Facebook showing the CM and his son carrying a coffin on their shoulders and smiling, taking a dig at Maharashtra recording the highest number of Covid-19 cases and related deaths.
In August, Twitter user Sunaina Holey was arrested for allegedly posting objectionable content about the Thackerays and circulating messages on social media aimed at disturbing peace.
Then in September, the Mumbai Police arrested YouTuber Saahil Choudhary for allegedly posting offensive content against women. Choudhary had also allegedly posted content linking Aaditya to the probe into Rajput’s death.
Then last month, the Mumbai Police arrested Delhi-based advocate Vibhor Anand for allegedly spreading conspiracy theories in connection with Rajput’s death.
The BJP has criticised these actions by the police.
Keshav Upadhye, BJP Maharashtra spokesperson, had last month told ThePrint, “In a democracy, there is bound to be criticism and dissent, but here they seem to have come up with a new law that no one speak against the government and its leaders.”
But Manisha Kayande, a Shiv Sena MLC, said: “Calling people names, using abuses is not freedom of expression. Generally, there needs to be a conscious effort by all political parties to not tolerate such irresponsible content. Such statements can affect anybody’s life or political career, but somehow the tolerance changes when you are on the other side.”
Incidentally, the BJP had also approached the police in cities across the state such as Mumbai, Nagpur and Ratnagiri, to complain about “vulgar and unparliamentary language” being used to troll its senior leaders, especially Fadnavis, the former CM who is currently the leader of opposition.
Mangal Prabhat Lodha, BJP Mumbai President, told ThePrint: “There was no FIR or any investigation into this despite repeated follow-ups.”
Cases under Congress-NCP govt
One of the most talked about cases of police action against social media posts dates back to November 2012, from when the Congress-NCP was in government.
Two girls from Palghar, Shaheen Dadha and Renu Srinivasan, were arrested over a Facebook post questioning the shutdown in Mumbai due to Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s death. While Dadha had written the comment, her friend Srinivasan had ‘liked’ it.
The case drew national attention and the Congress-NCP government faced a lot of flak from political opponents, activists and netizens. In 2013, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court, the state government accepted that the arrest had “a chilling effect and was unwarranted”.
While the Palghar case received national attention, there were similar cases filed earlier too during the Congress-NCP reign.
In March 2012, Mumbai Police booked two Air India employees, cabin crew members Mayank Mohan Sharma and K.V.J. Rao, for allegedly sharing lewd jokes about politicians, making derogatory comments about then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and insulting the national flag in their Facebook posts. They were arrested in May and even suspended from the airline.
In September 2012, Mumbai Police arrested political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on charges of sedition, cyber crime and for allegedly insulting Parliament and the national flag. The police also banned his website ‘Cartoons Against Corruption’.
Maharashtra Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant told ThePrint: “Everyone has the right to criticise. Freedom of expression has been given in the Constitution, but the responsibility of what you are saying also lies with you because you shouldn’t hurt anyone’s sentiments.”
“Now, there is a deliberate professional effort to create fake accounts to malign the image of the government, float rumours and create conditions politically conducive for the BJP. It is part of a national conspiracy,” Sawant said, adding the police are trying to unravel the alleged “systematic crime,” while the action taken against social media users under the Fadnavis government was arbitrary and simply to target political opponents.
Cases under BJP-Shiv Sena govt
In July 2015, Nagpur Police booked Ajay Hatewar, a city-based youth Congress activist, under the IT Act for tweeting an old picture of Fadnavis’ family on a yacht while the then CM was in the US on an official trip.
The complainant, a BJP leader, claimed Hatewar had “defamed the CM” by linking the two trips. While the Nagpur Police was looking for him, Hatewar allegedly went into hiding.
In June 2017, Mumbai Police’s cyber cell booked comedian Tanmay Bhat for tweeting a meme where a Snapchat ‘dog filter’ was used on a photograph of PM Modi.
In August 2017, Mahadev Balgude, a resident of Baramati, was arrested for allegedly creating a fake Facebook profile of Nidhi Kamdar, then officer-on-special-duty to former CM Devendra Fadnavis. Balgude had allegedly posted lewd and defamatory comments about her as well as the CM.
In May 2018, Mumbai Police arrested Aniket Patil, who worked with a private tourism firm, for allegedly abusing Modi and Fadnavis on Twitter for the Fadnavis-led government’s decision to build a contentious oil refinery at Nanar in Ratnagiri district.
The same day as Patil’s arrest, Mumbai Police booked writer and director Ram Subramanian for allegedly posting abusive tweets criticising PM Modi’s China policy, as well as Fadnavis.
A year later, in August 2019, Baliraj Dhote, a social activist from Chandrapur district, was arrested for alleged offensive posts on Facebook against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and showing PM Modi and Smriti Irani in a bad light.
Congress, BJP trade barbs
On the arrest of Baramati resident Balgude, Congress’ Sawant told ThePrint he was kept in jail for 90 days.
“All these things have happened under the BJP government. Who are they to say anything now and how can they support people like Thakkar and Holey with the kind of language that they use on Twitter,” he said.
The BJP, meanwhile, said the arrests under their regime were “not a clampdown on freedom of speech”.
“What we did was not a clampdown on freedom of speech. There were certain complaints that we looked into where the accused had also made rape threats to the wife of the CM. You can counter us on our political decisions, (but) this is not freedom of speech in any way,” said Priti Gandhi, national in-charge for social media for BJP’s Mahila Morcha, who was a complainant in the police cases against Aniket Patil and Ram Subramanian.