Shaheen Dhada sits on the edge of her bed in a purple-walled room that has been her own for 20 years. Outside, police officers sit posted for her protection in the small town of Palghar, 2 1/2 hours outside Mumbai.
The slight, soft-spoken 21-year-old is the latest test of free speech in India. Her alleged offense: questioning the shutdown of Mumbai last week as mourners gathered for the cremation of a leader who had dominated the city’s political stage with cagey intimidation tactics.
In a Facebook post Nov. 18, she wrote: “Every day thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. … Today, Mumbai shuts down out of fear, not out of respect.”
Shortly after the posting, she got a phone call from a stranger. “And he told me, ‘Do you really think whatever you posted is right?’ ” Dhada says. “I was actually confused about what he was asking for.”
She hung up and deleted her comment. But by then a mob was descending on her uncle’s medical clinic around the corner, smashing windows and equipment, and vandalizing the operating room.
“Within minutes, the police came and told me to come to the police station. I had to apologize in a written statement,” says Dhada, who was held overnight and then released on bail. A friend of hers who “liked” the post was also arrested. Outside the station, a mob was shouting, Dhada says, “and at that time I was really very scared.”
Dhada’s father, Farooq Dhada, says the family cowered inside their home for hours in the darkness, afraid the mob would come for them next.
The Muslim father of two says freedom of speech exists only on paper in India. He says he doubts the common person feels any sense of security — no matter what religion he is.
Shiv Sena’s Legacy Of Violence
His fears are not unfounded. His daughter angered followers of the late Bal Thackeray, head of the extremist Hindu party Shiv Sena, which has been linked to violence against migrants from other states.
Journalist Naresh Fernandes says when Hindu nationalism became a potent force, Shiv Sena turned its ire on Mumbai’s Muslims — igniting riots that killed 900 people in 1992 and ‘93.
Thackeray fanned the violence, Fernandes says, by “making extremely provocative statements essentially calling upon his followers to attack Muslims.”
Vaibhav Purandare, author of The Sena Story, says the party’s legacy of violence was on display in the vandalism at the medical clinic.
“That just shows they refused to learn from the past, that they continue with their violent tactics even though they have been rejected by the people,” he says.
Anil Desai, the secretary of Shiv Sena, says the party disowned the attack on the medical clinic.
“Things were blown out of proportion under the guise of expression of freedom,” he says. “It was an emotional outburst and the incidents … were blown out of proportion, that much I can say.”
Inciting Religious Enmity
At a restaurant in Palghar, resident Sunil Mahendrakar says Dhada should have known that her Facebook post would ignite a fury because Thackeray was a father figure to many, if not to her.
“Talking cheap or bad about somebody’s father should be denied, anywhere in the world,” he says. “It’s wrong.”
Dhada was charged under a law that makes it a crime to incite “religious enmity.” The police report cited the fact that she is Muslim. Fernandes says police were just scrambling for a convenient hook on which to hang a charge.
“They needed to find a cause of anger and suggested that she, as a Muslim girl, had insulted them, who were Hindus,” he says. “That’s ridiculous. She questioned why a city shut down after Bal Thackeray’s death — and Bal Thackeray’s not a religion; he’s a leader of a political party.”
Retired Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju says the court has previously ruled that bringing a city to a standstill is illegal, so Dhada should not have been arrested.
Every freedom is subject to “reasonable restrictions in the public interest,” he says, but abridging Dhada’s speech here was not a reasonable restriction.
The general consensus seems to be that the police not only misapplied the law but also succumbed to the mob’s will.
“There were thousands of guys acting outside their police station and inside the station house who were doing what the Shiv Sena has always done — threatening to burn the town up,” Fernandes says. “They just wanted to get them off their backs and wanted to make sure that order was maintained even as they didn’t quite uphold the law.”
The case also throws a harsh light on India’s new Information Technology Act. Police charged Dhada with violating a section of the law that prohibits speech that causes “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, criminal intimidation, injury, enmity, hatred, ill will,” according to Pranesh Prakash, the director of the Centre for the Internet and Society.
Under such a sweeping statute, Prakash says, 95 percent of India’s Internet users could well be imprisoned.
“I have 3,500 followers on Twitter and I’m pretty sure I annoy 100 of them on a daily basis,” he says.
Tackling issues of communal harmony is a serious issue in India but, Prakash says, “it should not lead to forsaking fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.”
From her self-imposed house arrest, Dhada says she’ll venture back onto Facebook, but her experience is certain to color her musings.
“I don’t want this to happen again,” she says, laughing, “but I’ll be careful next time.”
Dhada is not expected to face prosecution under the country’s controversial IT Act or any other law. Following an inquiry, two senior police officials have been suspended and a magistrate transferred.