What is Section 66A: The Undead Zombie Law?

India Aug 05, 2021

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What is section 66A?

The Information Technology (IT) Act of 2000’s Section 66A states the punishment for sending offensive messages through communication services. It claims imprisonment of up to three years along with a fine and can be sentenced to any person who sends via a computer resource or a communication device any information grossly offensive or menacing character information, false information with ill intent, and any misleading/deceiving e-mail, all with the intention to cause disturbance or annoyance to the recipient.  

Why is it important?

This section was declared unconstitutional in the Supreme Court case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India (2015) for ‘total’ state encroachment on the freedom of speech and expression calling it “vague and “arbitrary”. However, this undead section kept on being used by the police, even more so after the judgment. In 2019, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) assisted the People’s Union for Civil Liberties to bring this to the Supreme Court’s notice.  The Court issued guidelines to circulate their 2015 judgment. Just like before though, this section rose like a zombie as the number of cases filed with this as a basis continued to increase. IFF along with the Civics Lab built ‘zombietracker.in’ to trace these 66A cases. It was found that 745 cases under this provision were still under trial in courts of 11 states.  This was brought to the Supreme court’s notice yet again.

What happened next?

On 12th July, a bench led by Justice R F Nariman expressed their shock over the fact that judgment was not yet implemented, years later. It sought an urgent response from the Centre regarding this. In turn, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wrote to all states and Union territories instructing police stations within their jurisdiction to stop registering fresh cases under Section 66A of the IT Act and immediately withdraw cases filed after it was rendered defunct. The MHA  also asked them to sensitize the law enforcement agencies with the order issued by the Supreme Court on 24 March, .2015.

What does that mean now?

Despite the progressive judgments by constitutional courts, the blatant misuse of the law of sedition or courts’ reluctance to grant bail to the accused has not been prevented. In an era where the political class tries to regulate speech, the police march to their tune and even judicial wisdom is ignored, the Centre’s note to the states, though welcome, does not change the fact that only regular monitoring can ensure that the law is implemented in letter and spirit.

This is the third time for the draconian law to be scrapped, one wonders for how long will the zombie law remain dead or rather dormant before it rises yet again. Will the Centre’s note be enough? Will the states and the authorities listen? What do you think of it?

This article has been written by Ruchi Thakur for The Paradigm

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