In Kolkata, last month, several social and rights activists found their mobile phone services inexplicably disconnected. The service providers, all four major operators, when queried informed the activists that they were directed to block their connections by the Cyber Crime Department at Lalbazar, the city police head quarters. No service provider however agreed to give this in writing.
Moreover, none of the service providers felt any legal or moral obligation to inform its customers about the intention to disconnect their connections. The police too, suo motu, did not state on what basis they had asked for activists’ mobile connections to be cut.
An activist who approached the police through a lawyer was orally told by an officer that an FIR had been lodged against him on the grounds that he had allegedly violated Section 66A of IT Act 2008 for circulating an “offending SMS”.
The cyber crime police told reporters that the mobile connections of the other activists too had been cut on similar grounds.
Interestingly, all the FIRs have been filed from the Jorasankho police station in Kolkata, despite the fact that the targeted activists live across the city. The Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) approached the police seeking the reference number and the dates when the service providers were told to disconnect the activists’ services. But to no avail. The service providers too were not cooperative other than the oral admission they had done so on police instructions.
Meanwhile, the cyber police questioned those who had received the SMSes being sent by the activists whose cell connections had been cut. Not just that, the cell phones of the recipients were placed on a “tracking machine” to see who their contact were, and the nature of SMSes they sent and received. At least three persons were questioned in a single day.
At a recent press conference of the APDR, activists protested against what they described as a calculated and politically motivated step of the Mamata Banerjee government.
The targeted activists are well known in Kolkata and all of them in recent months have opposed the Mamata government on various issues. They had taken to circulating SMSes critical of the government and various corporate houses.
Take the case of Uttan Bandopadhya, a patients’ rights activist. He was an Airtel customer having the number 9831240790 for the last 11 years. His SIM was blocked on July 13, 2012 . Uttan used to circulate SMSes on various medical issues of public interest. He particularly opposed the government’s Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in the health sector.
MTS customer Kunal Guha Roy’s phone (9143137099 ) was disconnected on July 14, 2012. Kunal Babu, an environmental activist and a prominent Congress worker, had just before the disconnection, was campaigning against the filling of wetlands by the government for a garment park. He had protested against the murder of Tapan Dutta, who had launched a movement to save the Dunkuni wetlands. The ruling Trinamool Congress is allegedly linked to the murder.
Sumit Chowdhury, a short-film maker was a Vodaphone customer(9830229430) for more than 10 years attracted the Mamata government’s anger by circulating SMSes criticising its extravaganza worth crores from the state exchequer to celebrate the victory of actor Shahrukh Khan’s Kolkata Knight Riders in the latest IPL T-20 tournament.
On the eve of his mobile disconnection he had campaigned in solidarity with the Maruti workers at Manesar through SMSes.
As for the human rights and information rights activist Dr Shyamal Roy, his mobile has been disconnected several times. Shyamal Roy runs a mobile news network on people’s movement and related issues called Dodhichi. He was a Docomo customer.
There are more activists on the list of the targeted, but many are wary of going public for fear of attracting further wrath of the government.
According to Section 66A of the IT Act 2008 (Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc) under which the cell connections of the activists have been disconnected,
“Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,-
a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will, persistently makes by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.
Explanation: For the purposes of this section, terms “Electronic mail” and “Electronic Mail Message” means a message or information created or transmitted or received on a computer, computer system, computer resource or communication device including attachments in text, image, audio, video and any other electronic record, which may be transmitted with the message.”
What this clearly shows is that the government has not hesitated to misuse Section 66A of the IT Act to suppress dissenting voices in the state.
The genesis can be traced to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s public outburst some time ago against the Dodhichi SMS service of Dr Shyamal Roy. An angry Ms Banerjee at that point threatened to invoke the cyber law to stop the SMSes critical of the government.
Meanwhile, a fear psychosis has gripped activists using mobile phones. An attempt is on to unite and make themselves heard so that their right to communicate and free expression is not stifled. They have demanded the deletion of section 66A from the IT Act and warn that the Mamata government’s action is a pointer of things to come for the country.