Delhi HC issues notice to the government for blocking satirical Dowry Calculator website


Tl;dr

On Tuesday, the Delhi High Court issued notice to MeitY, DoT and Ministry of WCD for blocking the satirical Dowry Calculator website without complying with the provisions of Section 69A of the IT Act and the Blocking Rules made thereunder. The government has been granted four weeks to file its reply and the next date of hearing in the case is 2 March 2020. In September 2018, the satirical website was blocked by our outrage driven government machinery after a prominent politician demanded its blocking on Twitter. The blocking was in complete contravention of statutorily prescribed procedure and there was no notice or hearing granted to the website’s creator, Tanul Thakur. When Tanul tried to get a copy of the blocking order by filing an RTI application, MeitY refused to even provide that by citing the confidentiality requirement present under Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules. Therefore, the petition seeks unblocking of Dowry Calculator and a declaration that Rule 16 is unconstitutional in so far as it applies to owners, creators, developers and curators of  blocked content.

Due Process and Right to Satire

Dowry Calculator is a satirical website created by journalist and film critic, Tanul Thakur which uses humour to mock the social evil of dowry. The satirical intent of the website is evident to anyone who actually uses it, with the drop down menu offering options for skin colour like “Pitch Black (Not visible on a Moonless night)” and “Wheatish (Almost white. Would need some fair n Lovely).” In September 2018, the website was blocked by our outrage driven government machinery after a prominent politician demanded its blocking on Twitter (Read more here).

On Tuesday, a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court comprising of D.N. Patel C.J. and C. Hari Shankar J. issued a notice to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) for blocking Dowry Calculator without following the provisions of Section 69A of the IT Act and the Blocking Rules made thereunder. The government has been granted four weeks to file its reply and the next date of hearing in the case is 2 March 2020.

The writ petition challenges the blocking of Dowry Calculator on both procedural and substantive grounds. First, the petition highlights that Tanul was not provided any notice or hearing prior to blocking of the website despite it being a mandatory requirement under the Blocking Rules. Second, the petition emphasizes that satirical speech is protected by the Constitution and the government’s claim that Dowry Calculator could lead to incitement of a cognizable offence relating to public order is preposterous.

In addition to seeking unblocking of Dowry Calculator, the petition also seeks a judicial declaration that Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules which imposes a confidentiality requirement is unconstitutional in so far as it applies to owners, creators, developers and curators of the blocked content. Rule 16 was earlier cited by MeitY to decline Tanul’s RTI request for a copy of the blocking order.  If Rule 16 is partially struck down by the Delhi High Court, it would bring greater transparency in the website blocking process and make it easier for website creators to challenge blocking orders in court.  

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Here is what Tanul Thakur, the creator of Dowry Calculator, has to say about what motivated him to seek legal redress.

“Last year, sometime in September, I found out that my website, DowryCalculator, was banned by the Department of Telecommunication. That information came through an unlikely source: a tweet. I got no notification of the ban — or the reason(s) for it — from the government. It felt both confusing and baffling, not to say quite unfair as well. I also wondered about the written contract between the state and the citizen — enshrined in the Constitution through Article 19(1)(a), guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression to an Indian national — which, I felt, had been violated.
DowryCalculator does not promote dowry. The website had been around for more than 7 years, covered in Indian and international media, and a large majority of its users were quick to notice that it was a satire: an attempt to punch up. The website was an attempt at subversion, to show what avaricious Indian grooms really are: a commodity. Over the course of next year, I followed the due process — filed multiple RTIs to get the government’s response — to get some clarity on the abrupt, knee-jerk reaction, but got, at best, only evasive answers. The next best option, unfortunately, was to approach the court, to reclaim my fundamental right as the citizen of a democratic nation.”

IFF has been helping Tanul since May 2019 with drafting and filing RTI applications and we also assisted with the writ petition. The petition was drafted by Abhinav Sekhri and Vrinda Bhandari, and Siddharth Aggarwal generously agreed to appear on behalf of the petitioner for the oral hearing. We are extremely grateful to all of them for their time and effort.

The next hearing in the case is on 2 March 2020, and as always, we will keep you updated.

Important Documents

  1. Writ Petition filed by Tanul Thakur (link)
  2. Delhi HC Order dated 10.12.2019 (link)
  3. MeitY’s RTI Reply dated 06.08.2019 (link)

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