Any use of hash words, threats or intimidation on Facebook postings will soon become “cognisable offence” in Telangana. The K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) led TRS government is all set to amend Indian Penal Code’s (IPC’s) Sections 506 and 507, to convert offences under them from present non-cognisable to cognisable. The government is planning to bring in a Bill in the upcoming budget session of Assembly that begins in the second week of March. Chief Minister KCR has already signed a file by the law department, which has drafted the Bill in last week of January. Originally, the TRS government wanted to promulgate an ordinance, but changed its mind and took the legislative route.
Once these offences become cognisable, the police can arrest the accused without seeking permission from a magistrate. Currently, the police can file a petition before a magistrate along with a covering letter from the complainant. It is up to the court to grant or reject permission to arrest the accused even while the cops are free to probe the matter.
As arrests were not there, the accused were not afraid of facing complaints and were free to fight the cases legally. The cops too could not establish the crimes in these cases and these have almost become like civil suits, though booked under IPC Sections 506 and 507. As a result, the rate of convictions in these cases was very low, less than 1%.
However, the intentions of the government appear less to do with the alarmingly low rate of convictions in the cases, but more to do with political criticism, sometimes bordering on slander, mudslinging and abusive language on social media,
particularly through Facebook and WhatsApp, according to the officials in the Telangana Law Department.
There has been a spate of accusations and counter-accusations between the supporters of ruling TRS and the opposition parties on social media for the last three years. Mostly, these charges are too personal and too vituperative. The postings turn murkier as the followers of KCR and his family members and those oppose them engage in vicious war of words. Individuals posting videos and songs using derogatory language against the members of the ruling party have become a headache for the police. Initially, the IT wing the police used to investigate each and every complaint and register cases against the accused. In one or two instances in the last two years, the accused were arrested but immediately released by the courts as the police have no powers to do that.
To cover up this shortfall, the government has decided to amend the IPC Sections 506 and 507, making the offences cognisable with same punishments. IPC Section 506 deals with criminal intimidation by known persons and Section 507 covers the same by anonymous persons. The amendment Bill specifically mentions social media including Facebook and WhatsApp.
The punishment for criminal intimidation is imprisonment for a period of two years with penalty and if such intimidation causes death or grievous injury, or “un-chastity” of women, the imprisonment goes up to seven years with fine. A senior official from the Law Department said that the states have powers to amend the IPC in tune with the local conditions and necessities.
Opposition parties and civil rights groups have denounced the move by the government on the ground that it was meant to curb the democratic right of people to criticise the ruling party and its policies. A civil rights group, Organisation of People’s Democratic Rights (OPDR) has threatened to challenge the decision in High Court.
A. Revanth Reddy, who was elected as TDP MLA and has now joined Congress told this newspaper that the IPC amendment was the peak of arrogance and dictatorial attitude of the KCR government. “It is a known fact that it takes at least a couple of months to come out of jail on bail, so arrest itself is a punishment to the targeted persons in these cases.” He was jailed two years ago in the cash-for-votes case.
Telangana political parties joint action committee (JAC) chairman M. Kodandaram said this would result in pre-emptive arrests by the government and would stifle the right to free speech.
However, ruling TRS MLC Karne Prabhakar defended the proposed amendment on the ground that it would protect the rights of innocent individuals from baseless charges and allegations and criminal intimidation. “As there is no check, the opposition parties are levelling baseless charges against those in power, and we will not allow this to continue,” he told this newspaper.