Delhi High Court calls for case files and asks MeitY to consider hearing creator of satirical Dowry Calculator on website blocking #WhatTheBlock

tl;dr

In 2011, journalist Tanul Thakur created the Dowry Calculator, a satirical website on the dowry system. In 2018, the website was blocked by the Government of India, which was challenged by Mr. Thakur in November 2019 before the Delhi High Court, as illegal and unconstitutional. The case came up for hearing on 21st March 2022, and the Court recorded Mr. Thakur’s submissions that he was not given an opportunity to be heard before the website was blocked. It has directed the Union of India to provide the entire case record, and asked the Union of India to consider giving Mr. Thakur a post-decisional hearing, including an opportunity to take corrective measures, if necessary.

Why should you care?

Satire, as a means of expression, is one of the most powerful methods of telling the truth to those in power. Historically, satire has been used in comedy, comics, movies, books, you name it - to subvert systems of oppression. It is often provocative in its overtness, in order to prompt self-reflection and uncomfortable social conversations. The Dowry Calculator makes fun of the system of dowry. This harmful patriarchal practice that leads to the death of a woman every single hour in India (as per NCRB records) certainly warrants satirical attention. Nevertheless, this website was blocked by the Union of India, which was under the impression that the Dowry Calculator does the exact opposite, i.e. support and encourage the practice of dowry.

Worse still, the Union of India did not even provide Mr. Thakur, the developer of the website, an opportunity to be heard or even a copy of the blocking order! This was based on an incorrect understanding of the Information Technology (Procedure and safeguards for blocking of Access of Information by public) Rules, 2009 (“Blocking Rules, 2009”) - an understanding that is contrary to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. The Supreme Court there clearly said that any originator of content must be provided a hearing before their content is blocked by the Union of India. If one doesn’t even know why their speech is being restricted by the government, it will be practically impossible for them to challenge the blocking. This essentially means that the government is currently taking down content without any accountability or explanation. Given these considerations before the Delhi High Court here, these proceedings can potentially set an important precedent on free speech.

Background

Mr. Tanul Thakur, a journalist and film critic by profession, created a website called the Dowry Calculator, a satirical attempt at calling out the socially-entrenched practice of dowry. The website allows a user to input various socio economic traits of a man, such as caste, age, profession, educational background, skin tone etc., and then calculates how much dowry they could get in the patriarchal wedding “market”. If it was still up for public access, you could see the drop-down options for skin tone - ‘Pitch Black (Not visible on a Moonless night)’ and ‘Wheatish (Almost white. Would need some fair n Lovely)’ - for instance. Or, that it is “dedicated to all the match-making aunties of India.” The entire website is a clear attempt at making fun of men and families that ask for dowry from women, and holding up a mirror up to the absurdity of the system of dowry.

As a result of outrage online, the website was blocked in September 2018, and remains blocked. The blocking was done in a manner completely contravening prescribed legal procedure. Moreover, when Mr. Thakur filed an RTI to get the blocking order, so that he could understand why his website was blocked, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”) refused and cited a confidentiality provision contained in Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009.

Mr. Thakur approached the Delhi High Court through a writ petition in November 2019, to seek unblocking of the Dowry Calculator website and a declaration from the Court that Rule 16 is unconstitutional to the extent that it applies to owners, creators, developers and curators of blocked content. Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009 imposes a confidentiality requirement on complaints made for blocking of websites.

The petition challenges the blocking of the Dowry Calculator on both procedural and substantive grounds. First, on procedural grounds, the petition brings to light the fact that Mr. Thakur was not provided any notice or opportunity to be heard before the Dowry Calculator was blocked, despite this being a mandatory requirement under the Blocking Rules, 2009, as well as the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal. Second, on substantive grounds, the petition argues that satirical speech is protected by the Constitution of India, and the government’s claim that the Dowry Calculator could lead to the incitement of a cognizable offence (i.e., a serious offence, including dowry-related offences) disturbing public order is preposterous.

Notice was issued to the Union of India and MeitY, Department of Telecommunications, and the Ministry of Women and Child Development on his petition by the Delhi High Court on 10th December 2019.

Recent proceedings before the Delhi High Court

The case came up for hearing again on 21st March 2022, before the Delhi High Court. The Court noted Mr. Thakur’s submission, through his counsel Mr. Abhinav Sekhri, that necessary legal procedure was not followed by the Union of India before blocking the Dowry Calculator. Mr. Thakur was not issued any notice or given the opportunity to be heard before the website was blocked, despite this being a mandatory requirement under the Blocking Rules, 2009.

Importantly, given this, the Court directed the Union of India to “ensure that two sets of the case record are made available for examination by the Court, on the next date of hearing,” and also asked the Union of India to respond on “whether it is possible to give a post-decisional hearing to the petitioner, including an opportunity to take corrective measures, if found necessary.” (Paragraph 4)

Mr. Thakur was represented by IFF’s lawyers, i.e. Advocates Abhinav Sekhri, Vrinda Bhandari, Tanmay Singh, Krishnesh Bapat, Anandita Mishra and Amala Dasarathi. We thank Mr. Thakur for taking the initiative to approach the Delhi High Court on this important aspect of free speech and providing us with the opportunity of offering him legal assistance. The next date of hearing in the case is 11th May 2022 and we will update you after the hearing.

The petition raises important questions, both legally and socially, on free speech and the role of discomforting speech, which satire often is. If governments can unilaterally block websites, and those websites can stay down indefinitely, as has happened here with the Dowry Calculator, it is important for legal machinery to intervene. Further, if the manner of invocation of Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009 by MeitY is clarified 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.

Important Documents

  1. Order of the Delhi High Court dated 21st March 2022 in Tanul Thakur v. Union of India (link)
  2. Writ Petition filed on behalf of Tanul Thakur (link)
  3. Previous post titled ‘Delhi HC issues notice to the government for blocking satirical Dowry Calculator website’ (link)
  4. Previous post titled ‘MeitY defends blocking of satirical Dowry Calculator website #FreeToMeme’ (link)