Two women have been arrested in India over a comment posted on Facebook, sparking criticism from media and analysts who are accusing the government for attacking freedom of expression.
As India’s financial capital shut down for the weekend funeral of a powerful politician linked to waves of mob violence, a woman posted on Facebook that the closures in Mumbai were “due to fear, not due to respect.”
In her Facebook comment on Sunday, 21-year-old Shaheen Dhanda wrote: “People like Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a ‘bandh’ [shutdown] for that.”
Her 20-year-old friend Renu Srinivasan ‘liked’ the status.
For that, both women were arrested.
Analysts and the media are slamming the Maharashtra state government for what they said was a flagrant misuse of the law and an attempt to curb freedom of expression.
The arrests were seen as a move by police to prevent any outbreak of violence by supporters of Bal Thackeray, a powerful Hindu fundamentalist politician who died Saturday.
“We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship,” Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court justice who now heads the Press Council of India, wrote in a protest letter to the chief minister of Maharashtra.
Katju demanded that the state government suspend the police officers who had ordered the arrests and prosecute them.
The women withdrew the comment and apologised, but angry Thackeray supporters ransacked an orthopedic clinic run by the uncle of one woman.
A lawyer representing the women, Sudheer Gupta, said police arrested them Sunday, the day of the funeral, on charges of creating enmity and hatred.
They were released on bail Monday.
Clearly terrified by her arrest and the attack on her uncle’s clinic, Dhada told NDTV television she would never again make comments on a social networking site.
Both women said they have deactivated their Facebook accounts.
Dhada described her arrest as “unfair.”
Shops and offices were closed Sunday as more than 1.5 million people attended Thackeray’s funeral.
He was never elected to office but was seen for decades as Mumbai’s most powerful man.
He created an army of supporters by weaving Hindu fundamentalism with ardent defence of Marathis, Mumbai’s dominant ethnic group.
Thackeray founded his political party, the Shiv Sena which means Shiva’s Army with the sole aim of keeping people who are not from Maharashtra out of the state and stemming the spread of Islam and Western values.
In recent months, police have arrested a number of people in cases which are being seen as a test of India’s commitment to freedom of speech.
In October, Ravi Srinivasan, a 46-year-old businessman in the southern Indian city of Pondicherry, was arrested for a tweet criticising Karti Chidambaram, son of Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram. He was later released on bail