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Following the death of Bal Thackeray, a controversial Indian politician who was famous for his regionalist and nationalist ideologies, two Indian women were arrested by the police for anti-Thackeray comments posted on Facebook. Twenty-one year old Shaheen Dhadha expressed her resentment against the shutdown of Mumbai over the weekend, by posting the following comment to her Facebook wall, “Everyday thousands of people die. But still the world moves on. Just due to one politician dead. A natural death. Everyone just goes crazy.” Her friend who “liked” the comment was also arrested along with her, for voicing anti-religious sentiments over social media. It is interesting to note that Thackeray’s name was not explicitly mentioned anywhere in Shaheen’s comment. However, both girls have been released on bail and also face up to 14 days in prison.
Shaheen was forced to remove the comment and to issue a public apology over Facebook. Despite her withdrawal of the comment, over 2000 Shiv Sena party workers vandalized parts of Shaheen’s uncle’s hospital in a Mumbai suburb. Although, a police complaint has been filed against the mob violence, not a single Shiv Sena activist has been arrested. Bhushan Sanke, a local Shiv Sena worker filed the case against Shaheen.
Bal Thackeray, the powerful leader of the Shiv Sena party in Maharashtra, died at the age of 86 on Saturday afternoon, following a long period of ill-health. He had founded the Shiv Sena in the 1960s with the strong conviction that he would fight for the interests of the local Hindus in Maharashtra.
As soon as news of his death leaked, businesses, shops, restaurants, and offices in Mumbai closed down either as a mark of respect or out of fear. The public transportation systems came to a grinding halt with taxis and autos going off the roads. Within a couple of hours, the city of Mumbai was shut down. In some parts of the city, there was unrest, but the funeral procession proceeded smoothly over the weekend.
The Shiv Sena’s backlash has outraged many Indians and the social media world is agitated. A new Facebook group titled, “Ban Shiv Sena” has been created and it has already received over 37,000 Likes.
The Chief of the Press Council of India, Justice Katju has demanded “immediate action against the police personnel who arrested the women.” In his open letter to the chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, Justice Katju writes, “To my mind it is absurd to say that protesting against a ‘bandh’ hurts religious sentiments. Under Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution freedom of speech is a guaranteed fundamental right. We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act since under sections 341 and 342 it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime.”
This is not the first time that freedom of speech has been curtailed in India. Not long ago, when North East India was rife with ethnic violence, the Indian government had ordered the blocking of websites, and Facebook and Twitter accounts, in a bid to control the inflow of objectionable content. It is unclear whether making a political statement on Facebook can truly offend religious sentiments. Indian authorities have always been criticized for not doing their part to enable freedom of expression.
According to recent information, both girls have also deactivated their Facebook accounts, fearing further aggression and legal hassles.