Government AWOL

Two young women have been arrested in Maharashtra, one for posting on Facebook an opinion on the aftermath in Mumbai of the passing of Bal Thackeray, and the other for merely pressing a button to indicate that she "likes" this opinion; they were later released on bail. In a case like this one, it would be all too easy to blame the IT law for being a bit too open to misinterpretation, or the police for being heavy-handed in its application. But that would be missing the point. The arrests in Maharashtra are no routine law and order issue, they are located in a wider political climate. They happened on the watch of the Congress-NCP government in the state. It must accept responsibility for the outrage.

Such attempts to misuse the law would be abortive, or at least more difficult to contemplate, if the government firmly drew the line. Instead, by all accounts, over the years, the Congress-NCP combine in Maharashtra has serially caved in to the grandstanders, rabble-rousers and the rightwing fringe. It failed to act against the moral police in the campaigns against dance bars and the celebration of Valentine's Day. It watched as an assistant commissioner of police, wielding a hockey stick and threatening the Mumbai shopkeeper into downing the shutters, became the symbol of vigilante justice enacted by the state. For almost a year, Vasant Dhoble was allowed to crack his whip on cafes, restaurants and hookah parlours and round up people for "crimes" ranging from overcrowding to gambling and prostitution in the metropolis.

Reacting to the Facebook case, Kapil Sibal, minister for communications and IT, has suggested correctives in purely hypothetical terms. It is a Congress government, after all, that also rules Maharashtra. The Centre could start by nudging the state government to stop contemplating its navel and start protecting the rights of citizens. In Mumbai, the threat of violence has become a routinised feature of politics on the watch of the Congress-NCP. It is telling that neither the girls arrested for the Facebook post, nor their relations one of whom had his property vandalised wants to speak about the incident. It is the duty of the government to dispel this miasma of fear.

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