The path to justice is familiar to Shreya Singhal, the 24-year-old law student at Delhi University who won Indians the right to free speech online. One of the roads to the Delhi High Court is named after her late grandmother, Sunanda Bhandare, a fourth-generation judge who did pioneering work to make the courts sensitive to gender issues. The foundation named after Bhandare continues to influence lives. “I have grown up in an environment where children are always encouraged to do things that they believe in,” says Shreya.
Her battle for freedom started on a cold November evening in 2012. Shreya, who had returned to India a few months earlier with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from Bristol University in the UK, was having a passionate conversation with her mother, Manali, a Supreme Court lawyer. The topic of the conversation was the arrest of two girls, Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan of Palghar in Maharashtra, for posting and liking a Facebook comment criticising the shutdown of Mumbai after the death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. The girls were booked for spreading hatred and charged under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act.
Responding to her sense of outrage, Shreya's mother told her to do something more than raising her voice. A few days later, Shreya filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking an amendment of the IT Act. “The misuse of the law had left me enraged,” she says. Little did she know that her petition would lead the Supreme Court to strike down the “draconian” Section 66A. “I am at a loss for words to describe how happy I am with the verdict,” she says. “My phone has been buzzing ever since the verdict came. I have had no time to even celebrate.”
Shreya says she received overwhelming support from many people. For instance, when the case was taken up by chief justice Altamas Kabir's court in 2012, he told Shreya that he was surprised why nobody had challenged this particular provision of the IT Act. Also, one of her batchmates walked up to her one day and congratulated her for her effort. “Such incidents infuse energy and hope in you to fight for the cause,” she says.
Interestingly, Shreya herself is not very active on social media. She enjoys listening to alternate music, reading fiction, shopping and hanging out with friends. Though she has Facebook and Instagram accounts, she has not joined Twitter, where she was trending after the Supreme Court verdict came out. To those who argue that the scrapping of Section 66A may increase cases of internet trolling, she says, “Most netizens are responsible and ensure that their online activities don't hurt others' sentiments. In a diverse country like India, where people have different opinions about every issue, you can't restrain them from expressing themselves on social media. Now that a new medium of communication has come up, the importance of democracy goes up even more.”
So, what are her plans? “I want to practise law and the area of intellectual property rights really interests me,” says Shreya. “But I can't predict the future.”