Prisoners of memes, social media victims -Ashwaq Masoodi
India is increasingly jailing its young for online posts that ‘offend’ politicians. The impact on their lives and families is devastating
Initially, they all thought it was a joke when the police turned up. Once the prison gates opened, reality sunk in. Entering the dark, stinking cells, filled with dangerous looking strangers, they all felt a mix of emotions. There was of course incomprehension, fear, and an unexplainable feeling of guilt for an unknown crime. But the sheen of innocence held steady, at least in their mind. It was after all just a social media post, or comment, or argument.
Trouble has a strange way of announcing its arrival that makes one sit up and take notice—a knock on the door at 3 am; men in jackboots rummaging through the house without permission; a couple of police jeeps waiting outside the house well past midnight. When policemen from another state chase you down on an otherwise ordinary day, that’s when you realise, in India, there is no such thing as “just a social media post”.
In 2017 and 2018, based on reported incidents accessed by Mint, at least 50 people were arrested across India for posts on social media. Some spent half-a-year behind bars, a few were in jail for roughly a month, while others were let off within a week. The most recent ones to get added to the list were five men, all Muslim, who were arrested on 15 November and booked under the Information Technology Act for making “derogatory remarks” on Facebook against Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and the RSS. The arrests have been across geographies and the political spectrum. Defence analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra, a vocal BJP supporter, has spent over a month in an Odisha jail after a ‘joke’ on social media.
Among those arrested over the past year, almost all are very poor; most are illiterate; over half are Muslims; and many are recent Internet users (one of them had acquired his first smartphone less than a fortnight before his arrest). “What is common in a lot of these cases is that they concern a comment on social media, either about a political personality or an issue of public interest. These are not direct threats that are being made against any person,” says Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.
As more and more Indians get online at a dizzying pace, both social media offenders and offense-takers are only going to increase. In just the past year, the number of Indians with access to mobile Internet shot up from 20% to 31%, according to a Lokniti-CSDS Mood of the Nation survey. Social media apps are the first to get installed—nearly half of India’s 18 to 25 year olds are already on WhatsApp.
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