Troll trauma: Sans law, Indian women with strong viewpoint easy target for online trollers

Sumi Sukanya Dutta finds that India has no dedicated law to tackle online trolling and nobody with a strong political or social viewpoint that goes against a certain ideology enjoys any immunity.

Published: 07th July 2018 10:49 PM  |   Last Updated: 08th July 2018 12:57 PM   |  A+A-

External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj

The row over the micro blogging messages attacking Ms Swaraj took a new turn when one missive in the micro blogging site had gone to the extent of urging her husband Swaraj Kaushal, a former Mizoram Governor, to 'beat her up' to stop Muslim appeasement. (File| AP)

Days after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was viciously attacked on Twitter for helping an interfaith couple who were denied passports, Sumi Sukanya Dutta finds that India has no dedicated law to tackle online trolling and nobody with a strong political or social viewpoint that goes against a certain ideology enjoys any immunity

Last week, when 36-year-old Girish Maheshwari was arrested in Ahmedabad by a joint team of Mumbai and Delhi police, it was the first instance of somebody being apprehended in India for abusing a public figure online.

Maheshwari, whose profile on Facebook says he is an “accounting assistant” with the BJP, had threatened to rape Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi’s minor daughter. He was booked under stringent sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offence Act at the behest of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

Why was Chaturvedi subjected to this vitriol? Because a fake comment attributed to her had gone viral on social media.

This and the recent online bashing of the BJP’s senior-most woman minister, Sushma Swaraj has highlighted how nobody, absolutely nobody, who has a strong political or social viewpoint that is not in line with a certain ideology can expect any immunity.

The External Affairs Minister was at the receiving end of an online attack because she helped an interfaith couple from Uttar Pradesh who were denied passports. The most outrageous comment was one urging her husband to beat her up.

“You cannot keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to bite only your neighbours,” said journalist Swati Chaturvedi, quoting Hillary Clinton.

“Women in online space get maximum slandering, sexualised verbal abuse and defaming campaigns for speaking their minds and sadly nobody takes it seriously. Before what had happened to Swaraj, she herself had never spoken on others’ abuse.

“The attack on anyone who has a strong political or social view not in line with a certain ideology is vicious but assault on women are particularly sexualised in nature by threatening to rape and kill them,” she added.

There is no authoritative data on the extent of online abuse against women. The National Crime Records Bureau just sums up all crimes under a general category of cyber crimes, cases of which exceeded 12,200 in 2016.

In 2016, Feminism In India, a digital intersectional feminist platform, published a report titled “Violence Online in India: Cybercrimes Against Women and Minorities on Social Media”.

The report noted that “the rise of the BJP, which came to power in the 2014 general election and espouses Hindu nationalism, has been accompanied by an increase in online abuse against a range of targets, from ‘liberal and secular’ journalists to activists and women from historically marginalised caste groups.”

The survey found that over half of the respondents had experienced online abuse or harassment, and 28 per cent of them had reduced their presence online as a result of the abuse.

The respondents said they faced the maximum flak for speaking on issues such as feminism, politics and religion.

“If a random woman is sexually harassed on the street by another random person, cops will take at least some basic action. But there is absolutely no action on complaints of online assaults on women,” said Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association. “It is extremely serious because now we are seeing a culture of mob lynching based on fake news.”

She had herself approached the police at least twice and both times, little action was taken. The irony was not lost on anyone when in 2016 Union Woman and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi was trolled badly after she announced that any woman who is targeted online can ask for help by using a certain hashtag.

A joint secretary in her office could not provide data on such complaints but said the ministry had “intervened” in over 100 cases, often leading to lodging of FIRs.

There is, however, no follow-up data on what happens to the accused in such cases, except for suspension of their social media accounts.

The WCD ministry official, however, stressed that of late the number of such complaints had come down. That may not be because of a decline in trolling but simply inaction, said Neha Dixit, an independent journalist.

“On a few occasions, I... wrote to the WCD ministry but there was absolutely no response from their side,” she told The Sunday Standard. “Such is the volume of trolling on my timeline that I do not have the energy to even complain, knowing full well that I won’t get any support.” Krishnan said the worst of trolls were followed by the Prime Minister and many ministers.

Cyber crime expert and Supreme Court lawyer Pavan Duggal said there were no dedicated laws in India against online trolling. Since March 2015, when Section 66 of the Information Technology Act -- dealing with freedom of expression -- was struck down, there has been a massive increase in online trolling, he said. “Currently, there are hardly any cases or convictions in India that have resulted from online trolling.”

Reena Tete, programme manager, gender-based violence, Amnesty International India, said implementation of existing laws and urging social media platforms to follow rules was an important step to address the problem. “Not taking online abuse seriously undermines the human rights of women, especially the right to equality and right to freedom of expression.”

According to Dixit, it is the wider context that needs to be examined rather than just online safety. “The attacks get sharper when, for instance, I write on an issue highlighting wrongs and atrocities against particular communities. By only talking about trolling and abuse, are we not missing the larger point?”

What are the legal options available in India?
SECTION 507 OF IPC
Deals with criminal intimidation by anonymous communication and can be used by women facing harassment and threats online, particularly rape threats. Due to the inclusion of the term ‘anonymous’, the section covers online trolls. It allows a victim to lodge a complaint without knowing the identity of the harasser
SECTION 66E OF IT ACT
Deals with violation of privacy. It punishes anyone who intentionally or knowingly captures, publishes or transmits the image of a private area of any person without his or her consent under circumstances violating the privacy of that person. The word ‘consent’ gives women a solid reason to rely on this section
SECTION 499 OF IPC
Using words, signs, visible representations, making or publishing any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm the reputation of such person, is said to defame that person
SECTION 509 OF IPC
Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman
SECTIONS 354A, 354D OF IPC
After the December 2012 Nirbhaya case, law made stringent. These sections deal with sexual harassment, stalking & harassment via electronic communication

Do foreign countries have specific laws to tackle trolling?
US: Trolling by itself does not explicitly carry criminal sanctions under federal law
UK: Trolls who post abusive or offensive material online face up to two years in prison
AUSTRALIA: Has broad criminal laws that could be used to prosecute individuals for online abuse
NEW ZEALAND: Trolls face up to two years in jail under a controversial new law that bans harmful digital communication
ITALY: Illegal to subject a child to cyber harassment. Any insulting post or defamatory comment has to be quickly removed from social media sites
CHINA: No specific law
SWEDEN: No specific law
SINGAPORE: Anti-social acts such as cyber harassment, bullying of children, sexual harassment in the workplace and stalking are deemed illegal. A person found guilty of unlawful stalking will get a fine of up to S$5,000 ($3922) or a jail term not exceeding 12 months. Repeat offenders may face a fine of up to S$10,000 and/or a jail term of not more than two years

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