Centre for Internet & Society

Strap: Authorities suggest it was more than a Facebook post that led to shutdown.

Udaipur: In April 2017, a Facebook post led to 21-year-old Ibrahim* getting arrested and Rajasthan’s Udaipur city losing its mobile internet for four days (broadband banned only for first day). The authorities say the hateful content proliferating after Ibrahim’s social media post in praise of neighbouring nation Pakistan could be tackled only by curtailing internet service. Ibrahim’s family has since left the Fatehnagar locality where they were residing.

“On April 19, an FIR was filed by Fatehnagar resident Rahul Chawda” stating that Ibrahim “is a Muslim and has commented on Facebook ‘Pakistan zindabad tha, Pakistan zindabad hai aur Pakistan zindabad rahega’, which had hurt their religious sentiments. People from Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena had also come along with Rahul to press that a case of sedition be filed,” Subhash Chand, head constable of Fatehnagar police station, told 101reporters.

A case under section 153A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, etc.) of the  Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 67 of the Information Technology Act (punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) was registered. “However, sedition charges were not registered as their report did not have sufficient basis for it,” Chand says.

Ibrahim, an undergraduate, lived in a slum in Fatehnagar and did odd jobs to earn money. His father works as a taxi driver to support a family of four children.  “Ibrahim had no past criminal record. His family left the locality after the incident. Their house is locked since past few months. He was arrested the same day when FIR was registered, but is presently out on bail,” says Gopal Lal Sharma, station house officer, Fatehnagar police station.

In his locality though, Ibrahim’s reputation was that of a “notorious” boy. “His family was fed up with him. He used to post useless content on Facebook. The atmosphere in the city was tensed between the communities at that time. So, his post triggered the religious sentiments,” says Nadir Khan, 40, a neighbour.

Udaipur police say the content posted by Ibrahim on social media was hateful and could’ve lead to clashes between communities. “Isn’t it enough to say the post was inflammatory?” replied Anand Shrivastava, inspector general of police (IG), Udaipur, when questioned about the content of Ibrahim’s post. “Such messages get easily viral on social media. Some people use Facebook and WhatsApp to spread hatred, but there is no particular site, or content that is blocked during internet shutdown. Accessibility to the internet is completely restricted,” he added.

“Messages that could outrage the religious sentiments of the Hindu community were circulated, and we had to shut down internet in the district for four days,” Shrivastava says. When asked what happens if such inflammatory content finds its way back on internet once it is restored, the IG says, “We review the situation. If it is still in circulation, we can continue with the shutdown.”

‘More than an FB post’

Then Udaipur district magistrate Rohit Gupta, however, doesn’t attribute the shutdown to the post by Ibrahim. “It was not because of a particular kid. There were other reasons. Some incidents had happened in the city which led to a lot of improper posts being circulated on social media,” says Rohit Gupta, who is now the district magistrate for Kota.

Explaining the administrative procedure behind an internet shutdown, Gupta says, “Based on a report from the police, many agencies, including intelligence and the affected party, are consulted about the decision to implement internet shutdown. Curtailing internet doesn’t allow the situation to aggravate further. Its fallout affects the general masses, too, but that happens even in the case of a curfew when we restrict people’s movement.”

Gupta says internet shutdown is a preventive action to keep the situation from escalating into a full blown law and order problem. “People will then question why the administration didn’t act in time to prevent it.”

While the administration ensured that banking and lease-line providers were not affected during the internet ban, several other businesses dependent on internet were affected.

“Why all of us?”

“If four people post hateful content on social media, why should 20 lakh others  be punished? When police are unable to control a situation, the easiest way they have is to curtail the internet. I couldn’t work for four days. Many others, who depend on internet for work like me, were affected. They should ban only the social media,” says Chhatrapati Sarupria, an online graphic designer who petitioned the sessions and district court against the arbitrary suspension of internet services in Udaipur.

Cyber experts feel there can be other ways to keep social and business activities out of the purview of ban during such law and order situation, but the competent authorities fail to make any attempts in this direction.

“Internet shutdown is not the only solution. Since, there is no procedure to stop only the hateful content on social media, the only option left is to turn off the internet completely. Facebook has a ‘report abuse’ mechanism, which allows review and removal of any post that goes against the Facebook community standards. We need to work on better alternatives to control inflammatory content on social media. Only if such alternative ways are initiated now, they can be regulated as we progress,” says Mukesh Choudhary, a cyber expert.

*Name changed to protect identity.

(Shruti Jain is a Jaipur-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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