Meet the upstart law student and the rockstar judge who freed India’s internet

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Image: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
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It is the most unexpected of pairings divided by more than a generation, but it has taken an upstart law student and a wizened interpreter of the constitution to restore freedom to India’s internet.

On March 24, as India’s supreme court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act—a vague web of regulations that could invite imprisonment for as much as liking a dissenting Facebook post—there were two names that stuck out from among the legion of activists, lawyers and others who had propelled the campaign.

The first is Shreya Singhal, a second-year student at Delhi University’s faculty of law.

The other was Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, a judge at India’s supreme court and part of the two-member bench that passed the order.

Dinnertime dissent

In November 2012, Shaheen Dhada, a 21-year-old from Palghar, a suburban Mumbai settlement, posted a comment on Facebook. It simply questioned why India’s financial capital had been shut down in the wake of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s death. Her friend, Rinu Srinivasan, approved of the post and “liked” it on Facebook.

After a local Shiv Sena activist filed a complaint, both women were booked under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act and arrested.

Meanwhile, in Delhi, another 21-year-old, Shreya Singhal was fuming over the detentions and, after a dinnertime discussion, decided to follow her mother’s suggestion to file a public interest litigation against the law. It helped that her mother, Manali Singhal, is a supreme court laywer, and her grandmother was a judge.

It took Singhal, who has an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from the University of Bristol, and is now a law student at Delhi University, about a week to file the petition. Later, some serious legal heavyweights fought Singhal’s case in court, including former attorney general Soli Sorabjee.

“I am ecstatic,” Singhal said on Tuesday. “It was grossly offensive to our rights, our freedom of speech and expression and today the Supreme Court has upheld that.”

Nariman on point

Even by the standards of the remarkable legal talent abound in India’s supreme court, Rohinton Fali Nariman is an exception.

In 1993, when Nariman was to be designated a senior advocate at the country’s highest court, the then chief justice M N Venkatachaliah had to amend the rules that set the minimum age at 45 years. Nariman was only 37.

In 2013, only 18 months after he was appointed solicitor general, Nariman swiftly quit as the government’s second most senior legal officer, purportedly after a series of disagreements with the then law minister. The straight-speaking lawyer—and son of another legal stalwart, Fali Sam Nariman—reportedly possesses a ”mercurial temper” and a weakness for classical Western music.

Nariman is also an ordained Parsi priest from the Bandra Agiary in Mumbai. In a blog post last year, former supreme court judge Markandey Katju described the ordination:

When Rohinton was 12 years old he was sent to the Parsi priests school, where he had to stay for 28 days in the agiari (the fire temple), in seclusion and was not allowed to meet anyone or talk to anyone. He had to pray 5 times a day and memorize the 72 chapters of the Zendavesta, the Parsi holy book.

On Tuesday, 59-year old Nariman, alongside justice J. Chelameswar, delivered a 123-page-long ruling (pdf) where they ruled Section 66A as “unconstitutional” and observed that it “uses completely open-ended, undefined and vague language.”

Setting aside the Modi government’s assurance that the law would be “administered in a reasonable manner,” the justices pithily noted: “Governments may come and Governments may go but Section 66A goes on forever.”

Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer and executive director of the Software Freedom Law Center India, described the duo as “rockstar judges.”

“They are committed to the constitutional principles, able to adapt with the changing times, deftly understand technology and will provide a conducive business environment for a digital India to become a reality,” she said in an emailed statement.

The government, meanwhile, has mounted a defence explaining that it was always against Section 66A in its current form.

At least, now, Indians on the internet will be open to questioning that argument, without fear.