India Facebook arrests: Shaheen and Renu speak out

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Palghar

Shaheen Dhada, left, and Renu Srinivasan, who were arrested for their Facebook posts, leave a court in Mumbai on Nov 20, 2012
Image caption,
Shaheen Dada (left) and Renu Srinivasan were arrested last Monday

Shaheen Dhada is softly spoken, almost shy. Not the sort of person you would have imagined to end up at the centre of an international media storm.

"I just want this all to end, I'm under house arrest," she tells me as she sits flanked by her mother, father, brother, cousin, aunt and uncle.

"What happened was completely unexpected and my family have suffered a lot because of it. I never ever thought that all this would happen when I wrote that status."

For Shaheen and her family, the events of the past week have been difficult to digest.

Like most 21-year-olds, she was an active user of Facebook.

A day after the death of the controversial Hindu nationalist politician Bal Thackeray, Shaheen wrote a status update, criticising the subsequent shutdown in transport and services which had brought Mumbai and surrounding areas to a standstill. She wrote:

"Every day thousand of people die. But still the world moves on... Just due to one politician dead. A natural death. Every one goes crazy... Respect is earned not given out, definitely not forced. Today Mumbai shuts down due to fear not due to respect."

The status didn't even mention Thackeray by name, but within 20 minutes she started receiving calls from friends saying she should take it down and say sorry.

"I was told to go to the police station and apologise for it. I'm not sure who saw it and had a problem with it," she says, still bewildered at how events unfolded.

'Because of fear'

Shaheen deleted the comment, and on the advice of friends went to the police station to submit a written apology.

She arrived to find some 2,000 people protesting. Many of them were supporters of India's right-wing Shiv Sena party - founded by Bal Thackeray - who had taken offence at what had been said.

Alongside Shaheen at the police station was Renu Srinivasan, a college mate, who "liked", shared and commented on Shaheen's status update.

Renu's comment said: "Everyone know it's done because of fear!!! We agree that he has done a lot of good things. also we respect him, it doesn't make sense to shut down everything! Respect can be shown in many other ways!"

"It was our opinion and we never thought another person would see this and create such problem," says Renu, who was at home alone when she received a call from a friend telling her to delete the post and also head to the police station.

She says she was confronted by an angry mob and was slapped by two women when she arrived to submit her apology. She believes the crowd were given the wrong information about the Facebook posts.

"I don't know how and who saw it, but someone took the screen shot of what we wrote and showed it to someone else who thought it was a bad thing about Bal Thackeray.

"The people who slapped me didn't even know what was on the status update, they just thought we were abusing him. What happened was unfair."

Both girls were kept in police cells overnight, for their own safety more than anything, but were arrested the next day.

According to Shaheen's father, Mohammed Farooq Dhada, the girls were originally charged under Section 295a of the Indian Penal code (for "deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs").

This was later changed to Section 505-2 of the same act ("statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes"), before they were finally charged under Section 66a of the Indian IT act ("sending false and offensive messages through communication services").

Both girls have been given police protection to ensure their safety, such is the worry there may be repercussions.

Fishpond vandalised

When I visit Renu's house, I find a police officer sitting on the sofa.

"It's weird having a policeman in our house. At first it was awkward; now we are getting on well with him," she says.

Ironically perhaps, Renu says the officer spends most of his time checking his Facebook account as well as ensuring the family is safe.

Both Renu and Shaheen and their families have nothing but praise for the members of the police force who have looked after them during this time.

It is a sentiment particularly felt by Shaheen's uncle, Dr Abdul Ghaffar Dhada, who also got caught up in the drama.

An orthopaedic hospital he owned was ransacked and trashed while four patients were inside.

A week on, and the shattered windows of the clinic and a police van watching guard outside bear witness to what happened.

"My operation theatre and all the machinery, everything was ruined, totally broken. It was horrible, horrible," he says. "Even my fishpond was vandalised."

Image caption,
In recent months, Indian police have acted against several people for their posts on Facebook or Twitter

Dr Dhada, who had been out of town celebrating his wedding anniversary when he learned that his hospital was being attacked, believes his niece did nothing wrong and says "mob psychology" escalated the situation.

The attack will cost him as much as $27,000 (£17,000) in repairs, but the greater damage has been to the families.

"Shaheen was only 21: she'd never seen a police station in her life, now she is traumatised," he says.

"It's unbelievable that it could happen somewhere like Palghar," says Shaheen's father, adding that there has never been any communal tension or violence in the 28 years he has lived here.

Now there is a tense atmosphere hanging over the town, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Mumbai: police are stationed at street corners to avoid a repeat of the violence.

The Indian media have for the past week set up their outside broadcast vans and camera crews on regular watch outside the two families' houses and the hospital.

"It's all been very bizarre," says Renu's brother, Rahul. "It's a very small town and no-one knew our family and my sister, and now the whole entire world knows us."

Bizarre week

Both families say they've received hundreds of messages of support - the entire episode has also reopened the issue of freedom of speech in India.

There are many in the country who believe regulations need to be in place to ensure religious or cultural sensibilities are not abused online.

Renu agrees. "There should be some restriction, we can't abuse public figures but we should be able to give our point of view," she says.

But she believes the laws are being wrongly interpreted.

"After this happened I don't think India is a democratic nation. I didn't do anything wrong by sharing it, it was a fact what we said and everyone knew about it, and I even said I respected him (Bal Thackeray)," she says.

Unlike Shaheen, Renu is planning to reactivate her Facebook account (through which she is connected with some 345 friends) soon, but says in future she will be more guarded about what she says.

"I'm not scared to express myself but I won't write anything about politicians," she says. "I'll be like, 'I had a coffee today, I'm going to sleep, good morning, good afternoon'. That's all."

Before they met at the police station that evening, Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan were nothing more than "Facebook friends", college acquaintances who said 'hi' and 'bye' to each other.

A post on a social media website has left both of them traumatised, but it has also created a friendship and a bond between them, which they will both take away as one positive from what Renu describes as a "truly bizarre" week.

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