- Shreya Singhal at her mother’s law chamber in her home in New Delhi.
Manal Singhal was pregnant when she took her final law exams, 21 years ago. So pregnant that she nearly didn’t take them.
“But my mother pushed me and said: ‘No, just complete them,” says Mrs. Singhal, who went on to become a Supreme Court lawyer.
Law runs through the family. Her late mother, Sunanda Bhandare, had taken similar exams herself. She was a judge, one of a handful of female justices in Delhi at the time.
Mrs. Singhal’s 21-year old daughter, Shreya, is now following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother. After graduating in astrophysics from the University of Bristol in the U.K., she is now planning to apply to law school. She took her first admission test last week.
But there’s something else that’s keeping the young Ms. Singhal busy while she figures out her school applications. Last week, she took on the Indian government in court, challenging the constitutionality of a law she believes violates the right to freedom of expression.
It all started last month, with the temporary arrest of two girls accused of hate speech over a message posted on Facebook.
- Shreya Singhal
- Pictured, Shreya’s late grandmother, Justice Sunanda Bhandare.
One of the girls, 21-year-old Shaheen Dhada, complained on Facebook that Mumbai had to be effectively shut down for the funeral of an extreme Hindu right-wing politician, Bal Thackeray. A friend of Ms. Dhada “liked” her comment.
Activists in Mr. Thackeray’s Shiv Sena party filed a police complaint against both girls, who were briefly detained before being released on bail. They were charged under Section 66 (a) of India’s Information Technology Act, which criminalizes sharing “grossly offensive” content online.
Ms. Dhada, visibly shaken from her ordeal, apologized for her comment. She also shut down her Facebook profile.
The Facebook arrests upset many in India. Free-speech activists attacked Section 66 (a), saying its vague wording allows too much room for interpretation, and hence abuse.
The incident angered Shreya Singhal, too. “It was such an innocuous comment,” she said, sitting in her mother’s office, a room in their Delhi home.
Had she been in Ms. Dhada’s place, Shreya says she may have responded differently: “I would have said: ‘Look, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings but this is how I feel. I am not going to apologize for what I said.” Ms. Dhada could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Singhal decided to go a step further: “I was talking to my mother and I was like: ‘It’s really outrageous that something like this can happen, someone should do something about it.”
“Why don’t you do something about it?” her mother told her.
So on Nov. 29 Ms. Singhal filed a petition with India’s Supreme Court calling for Section 66 (a) of the IT Act to be repealed on the grounds that it goes against the right to free speech as enshrined in India’s constitution.
Her petition – a public interest litigation– points to the Facebook arrests as evidence that the law, intended to protect citizens from defamation, can be used as a tool to restrict freedom of expression.
The Supreme Court has scheduled the first hearing in the case, Shreya Singhal Vs. Union of India, for Jan. 14.
With four generations of lawyers in her family, taking the issue to court came relatively easy to Ms. Singhal. “Law has always been a favorite dinner-time conversation,” she says, a wall of legal tomes behind her. “My extended family, my immediate family – everyone is a lawyer.”
This made her argumentative from an early age. In high school, she was a member of the debating society. And at Bristol, she lobbied, successfully, for the removal of a biophysics lecturer students complained about, saying his classes weren’t good enough.
Still, her mother was surprised when her daughter decided to take the government to court over the IT Act. “Frankly, I never thought she would seriously want to pursue it,” says Mrs. Singhal, who is giving legal advice to her daughter as the case approaches its first hearing. Ms. Singhal also has hired a lawyer.
Mrs. Singhal is an experienced lawyer. She is currently part of a legal team that is defending telecom companies including Reliance Telecom Ltd. in a high-profile case related to alleged irregularities in the sale of telecom spectrum. The companies deny having illegally benefited from the sale.
Other than the Facebook arrests, Ms. Singhal’s petition refers to two other cases of people being charged under Section 66 (a).
- Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
- Mrs. Singhal with daughter Shreya at their home in New Delhi.
One case is of Ambikesh Mahapatra, a university professor who was temporarily detained for sharing, via email, a cartoon that poked fun at West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Reached by phone, Mr. Mahapatra welcomed the petition against Section 66 (a), calling it a “great step” to prevent such episodes in the future.
The other case is of a businessman in Pondicherry who made allegations on the wealth of a cabinet minister’s son on Twitter. The businessman could not be reached for comment. The cabinet minister’s son has denied any wrongdoing. Both cases are being examined by local courts.
Representatives for three government ministries – home, law and IT – as well as for local governments in Pondicherry, West Bengal and Maharashtra are expected to attend the January hearing. A spokesman for the law ministry declined to comment. Officials at the home and IT ministries said they would not comment until their departments reply to a Supreme Court request to explain their stance on the law. In a written order, the Supreme Court said they must reply by Dec. 28.
So far, the Indian government has pushed back on criticism against Section 66 (a) of the IT Act, saying the problem is not the legislation itself but its misuse. To address this – in a move welcomed by many free-speech activists –the IT ministry late last month announced plans to make it harder for police to register cases under Section 66 (a), saying the approval of senior officers will be required.
But some, like Ms. Singhal, say this is not enough. On top of repealing Section 66 (a), her petition requests the government tighten the application of all laws relating to free speech in the penal code. Specifically, it demands that any arrests made under hate-speech laws must be approved by magistrates first.
While freedom of speech is upheld under Article 19 of India’s Constitution, it is not an absolute right: it is conditional to “reasonable restrictions,” including in the interests of public order and national security.
Ms. Singhal’s lawyer, Ninad Laud, believes the case could wrap up as early as February, as the court expressed interest in fast-tracking it.
In the meantime, Ms. Singhal can focus on her law-school applications. She’s considering applying to University of California, Berkeley or to Delhi University’s faculty of law.
Ms. Singhal is not the only person to have challenged the constitutionality of the IT Act. A. Marx, a retired physics professor-turned-activist, has filed a petition in a local court in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu also demanding the repeal of Section 66 (a). A verdict on this case would only apply to that state, however. Lawyers say there is a possibility his case and Ms. Singhal’s will be heard together in the Supreme Court.