Mumbai: Arrested on 14 May for sharing an allegedly offensive Facebook post about Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, Marathi actor Ketaki Chitale has spent 34 days in jail.
The post, purportedly written by an advocate called Nitin Bhave, is in the form of a poem that refers to an “80-year-old man Pawar”, calling him a “mosquito” who “hates Brahmins”, and for whom “hell is waiting”.
Since she shared the post, a total of 22 FIRs and four non-cognisable offences have been registered against Chitale in Maharashtra.
Subsequently, the Navi Mumbai police revived a 2020 case filed against the Marathi actor under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, for another social media post, formally arresting her in the case and filing a chargesheet as well.
A Thane district court last Thursday granted bail to Chitale in the 2020 case, but the actor cannot walk out of jail yet. She is still fighting for bail in the Sharad Pawar case.
Fearing that more police stations will seek her custody in the multiple FIRs filed against her, the actor has approached the Bombay High Court, asking for her arrest and detention to be declared as “illegal”.
Legal experts ThePrint spoke to said while there needs to be action against hate speech, Chitale’s month-long incarceration is “unjust”.
Chitale’s legal team now has its eyes set on when the Bombay High Court will hear her petition, especially after the court’s remarks on a similar case against Nikhil Bhamre, a 21-year-old student who was arrested last month over an allegedly offensive tweet about Pawar.
Last week, the high court had pulled up the Maharashtra government over the student’s arrest, asking if it will take cognisance of each and every tweet that it sees as offensive.
The many FIRs
Chitale, 34, was arrested on the basis of an FIR filed by Swapnil Netke, a local NCP functionary, in Thane district’s Kalwa police station.
ThePrint has accessed 14 of the 22 FIRs lodged against the actor, that by and large follow the same pattern — most of them are by local NCP functionaries who say that the post was a deliberate attempt to defame NCP president Pawar, that it hurt the sentiments of NCP workers, and that Chitale has “intentionally indulged in an act of creating hate” between two groups.
Some FIRs also claim that the post sought to create a rift specifically between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the NCP — something that the Thane police have also argued while opposing Chitale’s bail application.
All the FIRs were lodged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code dealing with promoting enmity between groups, defamation, criminal intimidation etc.
NCP members, however, deny suggestions of any coordinated effort within the party to file complaints over Chitale’s post.
Kiran Eknath Shinde, former NCP district president, who filed a complaint against Chitale in Dhule on 14 May, told ThePrint, “Pawar saheb is not just our party president, he is the head of our family. Even if Pawar saheb had himself told us not to file a case in the matter, we wouldn’t have listened to him.”
21 ‘reasons’ for custody
According to the remand copy, which ThePrint has accessed, the Thane police gave 21 reasons to get Chitale’s custody following her arrest. These include wanting to investigate her electronic devices, access to her Facebook account and recovery of her social media posts, wanting to find out who instigated her, who the poem’s signatory, advocate Nitin Bhave, is, and so on.
A magistrate court had in May granted the Kalwa police station custody of the actor for four days.
Once the police custody ended, the Thane police again listed 17 reasons why Chitale should be in judicial custody, before the magistrate court. Some of these reasons were similar to those listed on 14 May for her police custody.
Chitale is currently in judicial custody in the case and lodged at Thane jail.
In her bail application, filed on 18 May, the actor emphasised that the post only refers to one “Pawara”, and the complainant had “no locus standi to file an FIR if he is aggrieved by his own notion that the poem relates to some Pawar”.
However, the magistrate court, while rejecting her application on 27 May, said the public at large knows who the poem is about.
“If accused is released on bail she will have no fear of law and there are chances of her committing similar type of offence again. Further, if she is released a wrong message will spread amongst public,” the order, which ThePrint has accessed, said.
Chitale’s advocate Vasant Bansode told ThePrint that the actor then appealed in the sessions court for bail. “So far, four dates have been set and we are expecting the next hearing to be on 21 June.”
The 2020 case
Chitale was arrested in connection with the 2020 case a day after her police custody in the other case ended.
She was booked in the case in March 2020 for allegedly saying that Buddhists travel to Mumbai “for free” on 6 December every year to pay their respects to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar on his death anniversary.
Advocate Bansode told ThePrint that Chitale was rejected anticipatory bail in the case in September 2020, and was summoned to record her statement in the police station, “but the police did not arrest her at that time”.
He further said that the Rabale police had tried to get the Navi Mumbai police chief’s permission to file a chargesheet on three occasions — in December 2021, February 2022 and March 2022 — but did not receive the go ahead. “The chargesheet was filed only last month after the case concerning NCP chief Pawar came up,” Bansode added.
“We submitted to the court that the post was not meant to hurt any religion and the word ‘free’ was wrongly interpreted. The meaning was not free of cost, but unnecessary,” he further said.
When contacted, DD Tele, assistant commissioner of police, Vashi division, told ThePrint that he cannot comment on why the chargesheet was only filed now.
Advocate Swapnil Jagtap, the complainant in the case, however, said it is unfair to question the timing of the chargesheet.
“Back then, she was not arrested for reasons unknown. But if the investigation is incomplete then how will they file the chargesheet?” he asked, while speaking to ThePrint.
Chitale’s arrest ‘unfair’, ‘tit for tat’
Former Maharashtra director general of police D Sivanandan, credited for strengthening police action against cyber crimes, told ThePrint it is unfair to keep Chitale in prison for so long.
“The person who wrote the post…got away freely because you don’t know where he is. I am not saying that this lady has posted this innocently. It is venomous and sharing it on her social media page was also unfair. But it is not a criminal act that deserves incarceration for over 30 days,” Sivanandan said.
He, however, added that this is a lesson for everyone who participates in digital opinion-making without thinking twice about posting something.
“They should think of the consequences, apply their mind and see if their post might hurt anyone,” Sivanandan, also a former Mumbai Police chief, further said.
Mihir Desai, a senior advocate and human rights lawyer, told ThePrint that Chitale’s month-long detention is like “a tit for tat”.
“It is like, you catch someone who makes a statement against Modi so we will catch someone who says something against Pawar. In all this, nobody is going after the real hate speeches which actually instigate violence.”
“I am not saying that hate speech should not be criminalised. You prosecute undoubtedly. But what are you achieving by keeping someone in jail for so long,” he added.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)