‘Sonia Gandhi was godmother of 66A’ (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT 28th Mar 2015
Who was responsible for the abomination referred to as Section 66A of a revised Information Technology Act which itself has features which belong less to a democracy than to an authoritarian state? It took Justices Chelameshvar and Nariman of the Supreme Court of India to move the legal system in India closer to what it ought to be in a country which claims to be a democracy. A 24-year-old lawyer, Shreya Singhal was the trigger behind the challenge to the Act in the Supreme Court. For after all, it is the young who have the most to lose unless the shackles of the colonial legal and administrative system carefully preserved by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors gets scrapped and replaced with methods and laws valid for the 21st century. The Information Technology Act 2000 was replaced by an amended version passed without discussion in both Houses of Parliament on December 23 and 24, 2008, coming into force ten months later. It is not coincidental that it is after the amended version has come into force that this country's advantage in Information Technology has been severely challenged by other countries, including the Philippines. The amended Act made any internet-related activity operating out of India a hazardous occupation, because of the ease with which both service providers as well as users of the worldwide web can get tossed into jail, in effect at the whim of an official or the political, commercial or other individual controlling the decisions of such a functionary.
From the start, this writer has opposed the amended Information Technology (IT) Act, and in the process, sought to ascertain the inspiration behind its origins. What key political insiders claim is that the amended Act was the result of the "advice from UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi that legislation get passed which would assist in preventing the flood of less than complimentary references to her and others close to her in several websites". Both the print as well as the broadcast media have treated Sonia Gandhi with the same elevated degree of reverence as shown by Prime Ministers Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Modi, so it is understandable that the Congress president would have been less than happy at this section of the media being in parts considerably less solicitous of her than the "Establishment" in India and abroad has been over the decades. These insiders say that the UPA chairperson's pressure on the government to deal with uncomplimentary posts by muzzling online freedom of speech was relentless, especially from end-2007 onwards. They claim that it was because of this informal directive from the Congress president that the amended Act was devised and passed in 2008 with the support of the BJP. Although A. Raja's name has been tossed about — most recently by H.R. Bharadwaj — as the prime mover of the amended IT Act, insiders say that "Raja was listened-to only when it suited the Congress leadership". Whenever the Congress leadership was lukewarm towards a Raja proposal, "Sonia Gandhi would speak to Karunanidhi, who would fall in line. Hence, to say that A. Raja was responsible (for the amended IT Act) is laughable". When asked whether Rahul Gandhi was of the same view as Sonia Gandhi in the matter of laws to intensify online policing, the reply was that "Rahul is considerably more liberal than his mother". They claim that "incessant oral complaints were made to the UPA ministers about uncomplimentary posts on Sonia Gandhi, sometimes in very strong language" and that it was largely because of such informal communications from the Congress president that Government of India went ahead with the infamous 2008 amendments to the IT Act of 2000.
As was pointed out by this writer multiple times in the past, the UPA has, numerous times during its decade in office, passed pieces of legislation that would appear to have come after consultations with Kim Jong Un, the boisterous boss of North Korea. In practically every sphere of significant activity and operation, already harsh laws have been tightened, often significantly, so that life has become a minefield for those citizens lacking the billions of rupees needed to afford a top lawyer or the good luck to be related to (and possess a soft corner within the heart of) a politician of influence or a senior official. In such writings, this writer placed the blame for such enactments on Kapil Sibal and Palaniappan Chidambaram, but credible individuals reiterate that the brain behind the incessant intensification of colonial-era laws and administrative practices was Sonia Gandhi, and that Chidambaram and Sibal were merely following her wishes with the fealty and dogged determination both have demonstrated in this regard over the years.
Others view such placing of the blame on Sonia Gandhi as unfair, pointing out that she has been vocal on multiple occasions in expressing her love for the common man and the underprivileged, and has shown a partiality towards known campaigners for citizens' rights such as Aruna Roy, who mentored Arvind Kejriwal during that period when the Chief Minister of Delhi was not yet being informed by his key supporters that he was born to save India from sloth and poverty, and that the most effective way of ensuring success in such a task would be to expel or marginalise from the Aam Aadmi Party all except those holding a similar view. As for Chidambaram and Sibal, the duo have modern views and intellects considerably above the average, which indeed was why it was particularly disappointing that they ensured that Manmohan Singh would enter history as the Prime Minister who in his time created a system of laws, practices and regulations which sought to enslave the people of India as comprehensively as the British did in their time, and which marked a shameful retreat from the low levels of "reform" practised since Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister of India in 1992. Those who defend Sonia Gandhi claim that such measures were actually the result of the combined efforts of Chidambaram and Sibal, encouraged by Manmohan Singh (who seems to believe that the citizens of India need to be constrained and foreign interests liberated from the regulations imposed on locals). They say that this triumvirate was constantly looking for ways of tightening the control of state agencies over the citizen. They add that Sonia Gandhi is in fact "liberal", as evidenced by the fact that the Congress Party (of course, in a way which had zero practical effect) endorsed the repeal of the Queen Victoria-era law on homosexuality, and asked for the waiver of the death penalty in the case of a lady who was part of the plot to murder Rajiv Gandhi.
Despite the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared his intention to transform the structure of governance in India in a 21st century manner, elements in his government somehow ignored this objective and followed the standard (19th century) practice of the Delhi establishment and justified in court even Section 66A of the amended IT Act rather than get it repealed, as several BJP leaders had promised before coming to power. Now that the Supreme Court of India has reminded the government that Article 19(1)a of the Constitution of India (despite a significant watering down of the provision by Nehru in subsequent years) stands at the core of the democratic process, hopefully, the magnificent judgement of Chelameshvar and Nariman will be followed by other SC decisions which go towards ensuring that India morphs into a country where it is civil society which rules, rather than (as in North Korea), the state machinery. What the NDA needs to do is to repeal the entire amended Act and bring back with some small modifications the original Information Technology Act 2000 passed by Prime Minister Vajpayee.
Prime Minister Modi needs to continue repealing several of the odious enactments that have the simultaneous effect of slowing down progress, while increasing the quantum of bribes collected. Hopefully, sometime in the future, enough of the records hoarded in secrecy by successive governments will get released, so that it becomes known as to whether it was Sonia Gandhi who was the prime mover behind the UPA's flurry of Pyongyang-style laws and regulations, or the triumvirate of Manmohan Singh, Kapil Sibal and Palaniappan Chidambaram who were responsible for giving the state powers over the citizen that are contrary to any definition of democracy.