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How to raise the bar

Shreya Singhal, defender of free speech, on how you can fight an unjust law

By Deepa Menon  March 30th, 2015


Amid the gloom of last week’s news—India’s vote against gay rights at the UN, our defeat at the hands of Australia at the World Cup and the bizarre way we handled it—there was one bright burning spark. Two years ago, a gap year student filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging a law that could get you arrested for liking an FB post. Last week, 66A of the IT Act was struck down. Could change really be that simple?

It wasn’t simple, of course. She may come from a family of lawyers and has since joined law school herself, but when she filed the petition, the 22-year-old Shreya Singhal was no more an expert on the Constitution than you or me. She was as appalled as the rest of us at the 2012 arrest of two girls in Maharashtra over a Facebook post. She just directed that anger more productively.

66A is gone but there’s still plenty to rage against. Homosexuality is still illegal in India. Marital rape is still legal. The AIB Roast video is still banned. As Singhal puts it, “You can’t ban something just because it annoys you! The AIB Roast was a ticketed event. People either paid money to get in or clicked a link to watch the video—there was consent involved. Banning it is ridiculous.”

So can regular people like you and I challenge unjust laws in the highest court in the land and hope to win? Singhal insists that we can and we should. Here’s her primer on filing a winning petition.

Do your research. “Articulate why you want to file this petition, what are you challenging? If there’s been an arrest under this section, try and get the FIR so you can find out which statute has been used, which in this case was 66A. I got all the information I needed on the Palghar case from media reports.”

Prepare to answer these questions: “Why do you think this law is wrong? Is it wrong on moral or legal grounds, ie does it violate another law? Is it the violation of a fundamental right? If it is, you can file the petition in the Supreme Court. 66A was a violation of the right to free speech, the right to life and liberty and the right to equality under the law—all of which are guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Can you establish nexus to the event, ie can you contend that it could potentially affect your life too?

Draft the petition. “Approach a lawyer, who might agree to handle your case pro bono. Even a law student can help you get the language and format right.”

File the petition and follow up. “I went to court every time the case was mentioned, even if they didn’t get to it for lack of time. It lets the judges know you are serious about this. We’re a litigious country and our courts are overworked. Respect the process, be patient and keep the fire burning.”

How to support others like Shreya Singhal: What kept her going, Singhal says, are the many FB messages that poured in over the past two years. “It’s really important to show your support through social media. I knew I was not alone. I was also spurred on by the fact that arrests were still happening under 66A, even while this petition was with the court, for eg the UP student arrested for sharing a post on (politician) Azam Khan. If you start subduing opinion in a country as diverse as ours, then what is the point of democracy?”