NEW DELHI: The Union government informed the Supreme Court that the onus lies with the states to implement the apex court’s 2015 judgment quashing the ‘draconian’ section 66A of Information and Technology Act and said that it has repeatedly advised the states to drop all cases registered under the provision.
On July 5, the Supreme Court had expressed shock and dismay over police continuing to register cases under section 66A despite it being quashed six years ago. NGO ‘People’s Union for Civil Liberties’ (PUCL) had pointed out that states have registered thousands of cases post-judgment and that the Centre needed to step in for immediate withdrawal of these cases.
Interestingly, in such a sensitive case before a bench headed by Justice R F Nariman, the ministry of electronics and information technology chose a ‘Scientist G’ officer to file the response to the PUCL’s petition seeking implementation of the SC’s March 24, 2015 judgment in the Shreya Singhal case. The scientist said he was filing the affidavit with inputs from the ministries of home affairs and the information and broadcasting. The matter is scheduled for fresh hearing on Monday before the bench headed by Justice Nariman.
“The Section (66A) has become null and void with effect from the date of the judgment,” the Centre said and informed the court that between February-May 2019, as many as 21 states and UTs have responded to the Centre intimating that the police have been directed not to register cases under Section 66A and that no prosecution has been undertaken by the state under this provision after it was erased from the statute book by the apex court.
PUCL had told the court through senior advocate Sanjay Parikh that Maharashtra, which had registered 349 cases prior to the judgment, registered 381 more FIRs invoking Section 66A post-judgment. The Centre said the Maharashtra government on February 21, 2019 had informed the Centre that it has “complied with the Supreme Court judgment and that no prosecution has been initiated post March 24, 2015 under section 66A of the IT Act, 2000.”
PUCL had also claimed that Uttar Pradesh had registered just 22 cases before 2015, but its police went on to file 245 more cases after the judgment. It had said that Jharkhand had just 43 FIRs prior to the judgments, but went on to register 291 FIRs after the SC verdict. The Centre’s affidavit does not mention any response from the UP or Jharkhand governments.
PUCL had accused Rajasthan of having only 75 cases, but going on to register 192 more FIRs post-judgment. The Centre said the Rajasthan government on February 22, 2019, had responded to its directive for implementation of the judgment saying it had issued appropriate directions to the police and complied with the judgment.
In its rejoinder to the Centre’s affidavit, the PUCL through advocate Aparna Bhat sought a series of directions for implementation of the SC judgment in letter and spirit by the states and highlighted the proactive role the Centre should play in protecting citizens from getting booked under the defunct provision for posting messages in social media.
PUCL said the state governments must be directed to collect and collate all information about cases lodged and pending under 66A and order their immediate dropping/withdrawal. This could be achieved by a direction to the DGPs to take necessary steps and to the HCs to issue suitable advisory to the district judges for closure of cases in the courts within their jurisdictions.
On July 5, the SC had expressed shock and dismay over police across India invoking Section 66A to arrest persons for social media posts even six years after the SC had erased it from the statute book finding it to be in breach of right to free speech guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution.
Taking up the petition, the bench led by Justice Nariman, who had authored the March 24, 2015 judgment in the Shreya Singhal case striking down Section 66A, had said, “Amazing is all that I can say. What is going on is terrible and distressing. How could the provision be invoked by police even six years after the Supreme Court had struck it down?” Parikh had said that it is shocking that more cases under Section 66A have been registered post-2015 judgment.
“Shocking is the right word to use,” Justice Nariman had said and asked the Union government to file a response to the plea by PUCL, which requested the court to direct the Centre to collect data about all cases registered by police and pending trial under Section 66A and send a communication to all trial courts and DGPs to close the cases.