November 21 2012
Two women in the state of Maharashtra, India learned this week that criticizing the government can land you in jail and lead to political violence against your family.
When Mumbai’s financial district closed during the funeral of Bal Thackeray, a powerful yet controversal politician, Shaheen Dhada said in a Facebook entry that the shutdown was “due to fear, not due to respect."
Dhada maintained that behind the public show of mourning was a fear of violence from Thackeray’s followers.
The 21-year-old was soon proven right. After a friend "liked" the Facebook post, both women were arrested and 2000-strong mob of Thackeray’s followers ransacked the orthopedic clinic run by Dhada’s uncle.
According to the BBC, Thackeray was “one of the most divisive figures in Indian politics, [who] was blamed for inciting tensions between Hindus and Muslims and was revered by his followers.”
News of his death saw businesses shutting and taxis staying off the roads amid fears of violence by supporters of the right-wing Shiv Sena party he founded.
Time magazine reports that “the arrests reflect the wider wariness with which Indian authorities look at social media, even at the cost of curbing freedom of expression.”
Some Indian politicians have come out in support of women, but the arrests were not an isolated incident. There have been several arrests involving freedom of speech in recent months.
This was a war on freedom of speech and a war on two outspoken women waged by both a mob and the government. The government of India must take a stand against violence and for human rights. The government must punish the mob, not the women whose rights were violated.
Both women have been released on bail and have deactivated their Facebook accounts. But fear remains, as does a question regarding India’s commitment to freedom of speech.