Did the new minister in-charge of Information Technology in Andhra Pradesh think IT also expanded to Intimidation Technique? That is the impression Nara Lokesh seems to be giving, going by the manner in which a political satirist in Hyderabad has been picked up by the Andhra police. Lokesh, son of chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, was sworn in as minister in the Andhra cabinet on 2 April.
Ravikiran Inturi runs a Facebook page titled "Political Punch", that has over 90,000 likes and is known to be popular among critics of Chandrababu Naidu. His wife says Ravi is a web designer while unconfirmed reports suggest that he is also connected with the social media wing of the YSR Congress party, which is the principal opposition party in Andhra Pradesh.
The particular post for which Ravikiran was detained showed Lokesh asking dad Naidu to send him to the Legislative Council, or the Upper House while the banner of a kissing couple placed in front of Andhra's newly constructed Legislative Council building, said it was for "Adults Only".
The complainant, one K Satyanarayana Rao, was reportedly aggrieved by the Legislative Council building being shown in poor light. The case was booked in Thullur police station in Guntur district, where the new capital of Amaravati is coming up. Section 67 of the IT Act which deals with punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material and Section 292 of the IPC also dealing with obscenity, were slapped against Ravikiran.
Did the new minister in-charge of Information Technology in Andhra Pradesh think IT also expanded to Intimidation Technique?
While the establishment in Andhra denies any Lokesh connection to the detention, his recent utterances would suggest otherwise. Soon after he took over as minister three weeks ago, he let his displeasure be known at the "growing criticism" of the Telugu Desam and the Andhra Pradesh government on social media. News reports quoted him asking TDP leaders to initiate criminal action against anyone tarnishing the TDP image. And going by what he reportedly said, it is clear that he would approve of the police action.
"The (mainstream) media is favourable to us but we have no control over social media and there is a lot of negative propaganda against us. We have to curb this. If we start taking criminal action against those making critical posts, it will be a deterrent to others," Lokesh who is also the TDP general secretary, was quoted as saying.
The action against Ravikiran seems to take its cue from the rising son's command.
It is not surprising that Lokesh is miffed with how he has been mocked at on social media. The Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon-educated politician's gaffes while speaking in Telugu in public have provided ammunition to critics to create spoofs. For instance, he was made fun of for referring to April 14 as BR Ambedkar's "Vardhanti" (death anniversary) when it is was his birth anniversary. He fumbled while taking his oath as MLC.
Likewise, at an earlier election meeting, Lokesh called TDP the only party that was "casteist, communal, corrupt and money-minded'' before leaders on the dais pointed out the blunder to him. In another instance, he referred to voting on TDP's symbol of the cycle and said it was comparable to "hanging yourself."
It is quite possible Lokesh fears going the Rahul Gandhi way, who is lampooned excessively on social media. YSRC leaders like Roja call him "Pappu'', a term used to deride the Congress Vice President as well. But then social media is that kind of unruly space. If you cannot handle the sound of the pressure cooker, you need to get out of the kitchen. Using brute state power to bully a critical voice is not the sign of a mature leader.
It is quite possible Lokesh fears going the Rahul Gandhi way, who is lampooned excessively on social media.
The system has started using Section 67 of the IT Act after the Supreme court struck down the draconian Section 66A in 2015, calling it "unconstitutional in its entirety''. At that time, the two judge bench had said, "It is clear that Section 66A arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right.''
The jury is out on whether this particular Facebook post crossed the line or was the usage of Section 67 excessive.
Along with this, if the Andhra government brings in some kind of regulatory mechanism to curb social media memes, it will only be further muzzling freedom of expression. This kind of an approach also is similar to Tamil Nadu, which is seen as a police state, especially under the AIADMK.
Along with this, if the Andhra government brings in some kind of regulatory mechanism to curb social media memes, it will only be further muzzling freedom of expression.
Remember the over 50 arrests that were made by the Tamil Nadu police's cyber crime cell against people who they accused of spreading rumours about Jayalalithaa's health. Ironically, now the man who presided over the government at that time, O Panneerselvam himself wants a CBI probe into the circumstances that led to Jayalalithaa's death. Wonder why he allowed the cops to arrest innocent people if he himself harboured the same doubts.
While policing against obscenity and vulgarity on social media is necessary, it would be a disgrace if the state machinery is used to police politically critical content. The young politician who could well be the CM of Andhra Pradesh post-2019, needs to develop a thick skin, the ability to take some satirical punches and simply laugh it off.
And perhaps as Jawaharlal Nehru once famously told cartoonist Shankar, "Don't spare me."
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