WITH the Supreme Court striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology (I.T.) Act, the fate of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a 24-year-old resident of Bangalore, hangs in the balance. Currently in judicial custody, Biswas was arrested on December 13, 2014, by the Bangalore Police, after he was identified as the owner of a popular Twitter handle called “@ShamiWitness”. This handle often tweeted (and retweeted) in favour of the activities of the transnational terrorist organisation the Islamic State (I.S.). Biswas worked as a manufacturing executive in the city and is originally from West Bengal. According to the police’s statement, Biswas “confessed” to handling the @ShamiWitness twitter account.
The Bangalore Police is yet to file a charge sheet against Biswas which it was intending to do under Section 66A of the I.T. Act. Now it remains to be seen whether he will be charge-sheeted under Section 66F of the same Act, which pertains to “cyberterrorism”.
The Twitter handle used by Biswas was still accessible on Twitter, and had a last tweet dated December 14. A total of 129,000 tweets had been made from this account from its inception in July 2009; its popularity is evident from the fact that it had around 17,800 followers. Biswas would have tweeted an average of 60 to 70 times a day over the past five years.
It was an interview that @ShamiWitness gave to the British broadcaster Channel 4 that led to Biswas’ arrest. In an investigative programme of the news channel, Biswas denied any active role in the radicalisation of young men, but Channel 4 drew links between @ShamiWitness and the extreme actions of some British jehadis. The British television broadcaster shared intelligence inputs with the Bangalore Police, leading to the eventual apprehension of Biswas.
The challenge before the Bangalore Police is to build a foolproof case against Biswas. According to legal experts, this may not be an easy task with the Supreme Court striking down Section 66A of the I.T. Act. Also, this is the first time that Section 66F of the I.T. Act would be invoked. Sources also say that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is trying to ascertain whether Biswas played an active role in aiding and abetting terrorist activities of the I.S. in India or whether he was merely a very vocal online sympathiser.
The tweets of @ShamiWitness demonstrate a close knowledge of Islamic theology and a synchrony with the actions of the I.S. His profile image is that of Omar Mukhtar, the early 20th-century Libyan resistance leader who was hanged by the Italian colonial ruler, faintly overlapping with the image of a lion. Thus, it is clear that @ShamiWitness sees himself as a modern-day crusader against the neocolonialists of the Levant. What does this mean? Is Biswas really an ideologue of the I.S. as the Bangalore Police claims? Or does this mean that he was merely an extremely overactive, knowledgeable and religious—but distant—sympathiser of the I.S.?
In its judgment on March 24, the Supreme Court defended the liberty of thought and expression and drew a distinction between discussion, advocacy and incitement. Discussion and advocacy are at the heart of free speech and it is only when this reaches the level of incitement can it be curbed on the grounds of causing public disorder, the judgment stated.
Manisha Sethi, author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India , commented on Biswas’ actions: “It’s just an expression of ideas. I don’t understand what the crime is about. Look at the comments of Hindu right-wing trolls on social media in comparison.”
Manisha Sethi does have a point: The army of right-wing trolls who keep up a constant diatribe of vitriol in the online space is well known and the free run that they have on social media is well documented. For now, the police continue to hold Biswas in their custody, but the Supreme Court judgment will certainly affect the future of this case.
Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed