Last month, police in India arrested two women for “hurting religious sentiments” after complaints that one of them had posted a complaint regarding the virtual shutdown of the city of Mumbai during the funeral procession of Bal Thackeray, the divisive founder of the rightwing Shiv Sena party (the other woman was arrested for “liking” the comment). The Shiv Sena party has long been criticized as a “hindu extremist” group whose street gangs use the threat of violence to pressure businesses in Mumbai to give preferential treatment for Maharashtrians over migrants to the city. According to Police Inspector Uttam Sonawane, the woman’s comment “said people like Thackeray are born and die daily, and one should not observe a ‘bandh’ (city shutdown) for that.”
Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, calls the accusations against the 21 year old women “absurd” and demanded that action be taken against the police involved in the case. ” In a letter to the chief minister of the Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, Katju expressed his extreme displeasure, “We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship.”
While India’s constitution does guarantee the freedom of speech to each of its citizens, it enables the legislature to impose “reasonable” restrictions in order to protect state security, foreign relations, public order, decency and morality, defamation, and the nation’s sovereignty. Of course, what is “reasonable” is open to interpretation, and the two unnamed women were arrested after a local Shiv Sena leader complained to police that the comment had offended the religious beliefs of the Maharashtrians.
This case comes on the heels of the arrest of political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in September on charges of sedition for his anti-corruption cartoons criticizing government officials in Mumbai.
Cases like this should serve as a nut-punch to those who contemplate placing ANY restrictions on speech in the U.S. Laws that seek to place “reasonable” restrictions on our freedoms in order to protect other people’s sensibilities seem great when we are offended by the speech in question, but those laws will always backfire when someone who disagrees with us is in power and is easily offended by our opinions.