Criminal Case Against Indian Poet Provokes Controversy Over Speech Rights

Image from Flickr by Jennifer Moo. CC BY-ND 2.0

A poet in West Bengal, India has been charged with “deliberate acts intended to outrage religious feelings,” a criminal offense punishable by a minimum of three years in prison.

His crime? A poem alluding to State Assembly elections in India. Srijato Bandopadhyay's 12-line poem entitled ‘Abhishap’ or ‘Curse’ references the recent elections in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party swept opponents aside and elected Yogi Adityanath as the state's Chief Minister.

Yogi Adityanath, who is a Hindu priest, was a surprise appointee by the Bharatiya Party. The poem referenced the election and the ‘Trishul’, a trident said to be used by Hindu Gods and Goddesses.

The poem was posted on Facebook on World Poetry Day — but its verses were not welcomed by everyone.

A complaint was registered against the contemporary poet at the Siliguri Metropolitan Station for hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus. The Siliguri police pressed non-bailable charges against Srijato under Sections 295A (deliberate or malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 57 of Information Technology Act on Wednesday. They also reportedly contacted Facebook and asked the company to remove the poem.

Some spoke out in defence of freedom of speech, while others condemned the poet's writing:

The furore over the poem has also highlighted cleavages between followers of the country's two largest religions.

A Bengali blogger expressed support for both poets on Twitter:

Censored on Facebook, briefly

After much uproar, the poem was removed from Facebook on March 26:

It is unclear whether the US-based social media company removed the poem in response to a direct request from the Indian government, or simply due to users flagging the poem under Facebook's “Report Abuse” system. Facebook's internal “Community Standards,” which dictate the rules for participation in the network, do not explicitly prohibit this type of speech. However, the company does implement country-level censorship if it receives a legitimate court order proving that a specified piece of content stands in violation of the country's laws.

On March 27, the social networking site restored the poem and apologised for removing it.

Mandakranta Sen, another poet hailing from West Bengal, expressed public support on Facebook for Srijato Bandopadhyay and his poem. She reported to police that soon after, people on Facebook began sending her obscene messages and threats of gang rape. These messages stand in violation of Facebook's Community Standards, which explicitly prohibit harassment and threats of violence.

How free is free speech in India?

The right to freedom of speech is enshrined by India's Constitution, but not without limitations. And recent events have raised doubt over the extent to which this particular freedom is tolerated in the world's largest democracy by population in practice. This intolerance has been widespread, and multiple artists such as authors, comedians and filmmakers have found themselves on the wrong side of the issue.

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression. The freedom of speech and expression means the right to express one's conviction and opinions freely by word of mouth, writing, printing, pictures or any other mode. This is one of six fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These fundamental rights however aren’t absolute. The Freedom of Speech and Expression cannot be extended to sedition, slander, defamation and obscenity since all citizens are equal before the law and have a right to seek legal help.

Artists have a right to publish their work and express their opinions — and so can those who feel offended by their work and ideas. Debate is a vital component of any democracy.

But when it comes to freedom of speech in India, cases like this suggest that the question of “how free” still is yet to be answered.

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