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Centre's steps to implement verdict scrapping of 66A of IT Act 'far from adequate': NGO to SC

Steps taken by the Centre for ensuring effective implementation of the historic 2015 judgement scrapping Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which is still used for arresting people for offensive social media posts are ''far from adequate'', an NGO has told the Supreme Court.

Centres steps to implement verdict scrapping of 66A of IT Act far from adequate: NGO to SC
Supreme Court of India (File Photo)

New Delhi

A bench headed by Justice R F Nariman, which had scrapped the controversial provision from statute book by its verdict in the Shreya Singhal case, on July 5 had expressed shock after NGO 'People's Union for Civil Liberties' (PUCL) filed an application alleging misuse of the scrapped provision by police authorities across the nation. ''Don't you think this is amazing and shocking? Shreya Singhal judgement is of 2015. It's really shocking. What is going on is terrible,'' the bench, which also comprised justices K M Joseph and B R Gavai, had said while issuing notice to the Centre on the plea of the NGO. Under the scrapped section, a person posting offensive messages could be imprisoned for up to three years as also fined. 

The NGO, in its rejoinder affidavit filed through National General Secretary V Suresh, dealt with the steps taken by the Centre to implement the verdict and gave a slew of suggestions for its effective implementation. ''The steps taken by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) towards ensuring effective implementation of this court's judgment in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India... are far from adequate,'' the affidavit said. The Centre has said that it had taken many steps such as publication of the Shreya Singhal judgement on the MeitY website. 

The government had also written a letter on September 21, 2016 to intimate chief secretaries of all states and union territories, law enforcement agencies about the setting aside of the verdict. The NGO has suggested that the authorities be asked to collect the ''details of the cases registered by the police/law enforcement agencies under Section 66A of the IT Act since the pronouncement of the judgment in Shreya Singhal by co-ordinating with the chief secretaries/DGPs of the states and union territories''. 

In cases where the case is at the stage of investigation, direct the DGP in states and the administrators/lieutenant governors in the cases of Union Territories to forthwith drop further investigation under Section 66A, it said. ''In cases where charge sheet ... has been filed and the cases are pending before the district courts for framing of charge or trial, request the Chief Justices of all the high courts to issue advisories to all the subordinate courts (both Sessions Courts and Magistrate Courts) to drop all charges/trial under Section 66A and discharge the accused,'' it said. It has also sought a direction from all High Courts to all the District Courts and Magistrates that no cognizance of offence under the provision be taken. The NGO said the Centre be directed to issue an advisory to all police stations not to register cases under the repealed Section 66A. 

The top court was hearing a fresh application of PUCL saying, ''That, shockingly, despite the order dated February 15, 2019 and steps taken towards compliance thereof, the Applicant discovered that Section 66A of the IT Act has continued to be in use not only within police stations but also in cases before trial courts across India.'' It had sought replies from the Centre. Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, had said that on perusal of the IT Act it can be seen that section 66A features in it, but in the footnote it is written that the provision has been scrapped. 

''Now when a police officer has to register a case, he sees the section and registers the case without going through the footnote. Instead what can be done is that we can put a bracket just after section 66A and mention that it has been scrapped. We can in the footnote put the entire extract of the verdict,'' Venugopal had said. 

On February 15, 2019, the top court had directed all state governments to sensitise their police personnel about its March 24, 2015 verdict which had scrapped Section 66A of Information Technology Act, so that people are not unnecessarily arrested under the struck down provision. 

It also asked all the high courts to send the copy of the verdict to all the trial court to avoid people being prosecuted under the scrapped provision which provided for jail term to people who posted offensive content online. 

Terming liberty of thought and expression ''cardinal'', the top court had on March 24, 2015, scrapped the provision saying that ''the public's right to know is directly affected by Section 66A of the Information Technology Act''. The first PIL on the issue was filed in 2012 by law student Shreya Singhal who sought an amendment in Section 66A of the Act after two girls - Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan - were arrested in Palghar in Maharashtra's Thane district. While one had posted a comment against the shutdown in Mumbai following Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's death, the other had 'liked' it. PUCL was also one of the petitioners in the earlier case and has challenged the constitutional validity of section 66A of IT Act.

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