Abhijit Iyer-Mitra was arrested under colonial-era laws that impose restrictions on words deemed 'provocative'. While convictions are rare, the years-long court processes are a punishment in themselves
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Reporting from a democracy, I don’t generally expect my sources to be arrested. That’s particularly true when the contact in question is an English-speaking defence analyst, working for a strategic policy think-tank backed by retired diplomats, generals and intelligence officials.

But, in late October, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at New Delhi’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, was arrested in the eastern state of Orissa and taken to prison, where he was detained for 44 days. His crime? A satirical video he posted on Twitter of himself at the 13th-century Sun temple in Konark known for its erotic carvings. 

In the video, Mr Iyer-Mitra, who is openly gay, adopts a faux-scandalised tone as he describes the brazen display of sexuality on the temple’s walls, including depictions of homosexual acts and bestiality. He says his intent was to mock rightwing Hindu groups that opposed the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality, as antithetical to Hindu culture. 

Police alleged the video was an affront to Orissa’s people, and booked him under colonial-era laws that make it a crime to offend religious feelings. They also took umbrage with some older tweets in which Mr Iyer-Mitra joked with a politician friend about whether Orissa or its neighbouring state was superior. That became the subject of a second criminal case. A local judge initially refused to grant bail, scandalised by Mr Iyer-Mitra’s attempt at humour.

“The district magistrate told me: ‘You are an educated man — how can you say these offensive words?’” the defence analyst said last week, after the charges against him were dropped.

Mr Iyer-Mitra’s prominence ensured his arrest drew plenty of headlines. But away from the media spotlight, ordinary Indians are finding their freedom of expression doesn’t extend as far as they thought on social media.

India’s liberal, post-independence constitution guarantees free speech and free expression as a fundamental right. But colonial-era provisions to the penal code impose restrictions on words deemed “provocative” or that insult or offend others’ religious feelings. These vague standards, as well as prohibitions on “obscenity”, are vulnerable to abuse. 

In recent years, academic books, paintings and even plays have been removed from the public domain, amid complaints they are offensive. As more Indians get online and hook up to services such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, they face a growing risk of criminal prosecution for expressing their views. 

According to Mint, an Indian financial newspaper, there have been at least 50 reported incidents of people being criminally prosecuted for social media posts or comments in 2017 and 2018, spending anything from a few days to six months behind bars. But Apar Gupta, chief executive of the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, says the government’s own data suggest that at least 3,000 people have been criminally prosecuted in the past few years.

The posts that seem to invite the greatest wrath from officials have been politically-tinged, criticising or lampooning powerful individuals such as prime minister Narendra Modi or Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. While convictions are rare, the years-long court processes are in themselves a tough punishment, particularly for working class people, for whom even hiring a lawyer is a crushing financial burden. 

Mr Gupta frets that the number of such cases is likely to rise, unless India reforms its complex welter of “ content laws”, now easily abused by police eager to please their political masters. 

“The laws are a great danger to everyday people — they don’t know what [they mean],” says Mr Gupta, who is a lawyer. “Indians are no different from anyone else in the world — they will talk about politics. If you have content restrictions that are penal offences and can lead to imprisonment, it’s just going to lead to an explosion of litigation and people being in jails.” 

For his part, Mr Iyer-Mitra has returned to Twitter, seemingly as irreverent and combative as ever. But in his first tweet on regaining his freedom, he recalled a former teacher, who used to tell him: “‘Your jokes are more dangerous than your serious comments.’ Today I understand exactly what she meant . . . finally.”

amy.kazmin@ft.com

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