BENGALURU: If you are a frequent user of the Internet, you could now be booked under the Goonda Act and thrown into prison for up to a year before your case is brought up before the magistrate.
In July 2014, Karnataka brought most offences under the Information Technology Act, 2000, and Indian Copyright Act, 1957, under the ambit of the Goonda Act. Up until then, bootleggers, drug offenders, gamblers and more could be booked under this Act.
Free Software Movement Karnataka (FSMK) organised a panel discussion on "Digital Freedom in the Information Age" with special focus on the recent amendments to the Goonda Act. The event held at Rani Ammanni College, Malleshwaram had speakers Prof K Gopinath, president, FSMK; Prabir Purkayastha, Delhi Science Forum and Darshana Mitra, Alternative Law Forum; on the panel.
Kicking off proceedings, Gopinath brought out the general laxity in the process of lawmaking citing examples from the infamous Section 66A of the IT Act which has clubbed together 'annoyance' and 'criminal intimidation' into the same category of offence.
The Goonda Act, in effect, allows the government to detain a person for upto one year "with a view to prevent him from acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order." The Act also allows the government to imprison individuals even before they have committed a crime, which is known as "preventive detention".
Darshana Mitra gave an elaborate account of the history of preventive detention laws in India, tracing it back to the origin of the Goonda Act in 1923 in the Calcutta province of the erstwhile British Raj. The colonial law was a result of the complaints from traders of the port-city against crime syndicates disrupting normal life and thus affecting their trade, she says. Although the 1923 Act has since then been abolished, similar laws have been passed in many states of post-independent India particularly around the Emergency.
“What the Goonda Act effectively does is that it defines certain categories of people - bootleggers, drug offenders, gamblers, immoral offenders, slum grabbers, immoral traffic offenders - and says that these people and their activities are disruptive to social order. The recent amendments made in July 2014 add digital offenders and video/audio pirates to this list,” says Darshana.
She proceeded to criticise the idea of transplanting legislations around public space onto cyber space without taking into account the difference in the nature of these areas of human activity. “Suppose, tomorrow I send a song to a friend using Whatsapp, I don’t see how that could be interpreted as disrupting social order. The two things are not related at all,” she says.
“In Karnataka especially, the new amendments have two repercussions. One, the idea of the common criminal element has now changed to include almost every member of the society that uses the Internet regularly, which encompasses almost the whole of the middle class. Secondly, our imagination of our urban space that was previously defined by physical spaces or structures like parks, buildings, factories; has now broadened to include the cyber space as well,” she continues.
She also criticised the film industry lobby’s role in going after CD/DVD pirates using the Goonda Act.
Prabir Purkayastha condemned the preventive detention laws in general stating that with no juidical review, such laws give the executive the power to do whatever it wants. He pointed out that preventive detention laws have never been used for the official purpose of what they were created for, and are mostly used to restrict political activism. With the inclusion of copyright offenses under the Goonda Act, the government has thus criminalised the act of copying songs which is a day-to-day activity among the middle class youth today.
“What we need to understand is that most of the middle class is not aware that they are also under scrutiny when it comes to the Goonda Act. Most people don’t know that sending a song to a friend or ripping a DVD is against the law, making them a target of this Act. A lot more awareness needs to be created in this respect,” says Prabir.
He questioned whether the amendments are actually serving the purpose of protecting public order which was initially put forward as the spirit of the Goonda Act. He pointed out that it’s the failure of the civil society to counter such changes effectively and stated the need for an organised protest and campaign against such laws.