Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar Image Credit: PTI

Patna: The government in the Indian state of Bihar has said it will treat critical and offensive posts against it and its officials on social media as “cyber crimes” and warned of legal action against persons making them.

The move has triggered a political storm, with the opposition describing it as a draconian act aimed at gagging the voice of the common man.

The letter issued by the Economic Offences Wing and Cyber Crime Department of the Bihar police says there has been a growing trend of making “offensive, indecent and critical” comments online or on social media against the government, ministers, parliamentarians, state lawmakers and government officials.

“Such acts are against the law and fall under cyber crime. So, it is imperative that appropriate legal action is taken against the persons/organisations making such comments,” wrote Nayyar Hasnain Khan, additional director general, Economic Offences wing, in his letter to all government departments.

The letter further asked secretaries of all government departments to inform them about any such posts they come across so that necessary legal is taken. The letter was issued on January 21.

Cyber crimes are punishable with imprisonment of up to seven years and monetary fines or both, under the Information Technology Act. Bihar has an estimated 60 million mobile phone users who are active on social media. Reports said for the past 18 months, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in Bihar, headed by chief minister Nitish Kumar, has been in the firing line of the social media users who have been very critical of the government’s functioning and corruption in the system. This has apparently prompted the government to act against such persons and organisations.

The government’s order has sparked strong protests with the opposition describing it as an attempt to “gag the voice” of the masses. “We are very alarmed at the way the chief minister has gone on trampling people’s fundamental rights in a state which is the birthplace of democracy. If the government, ministers and officials are indulging in corruption, why shouldn’t the common man raise [the issue]? Why shouldn’t the people criticise the government, its schemes or its faults? What’s wrong in it?” Bihar opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav asked the media on Saturday.

Tejashwi who is a lawmaker from the main opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) asked the chief minister to withdraw this order and said will fight for the rights of the people. He wondered how having a different viewpoint could be a crime.

“This is nothing but an attempt to suppress free speech and gag the people’s voice. The new directive means the police can now put anybody in jail or harass him if he is critical of the government or posts on the social media highlighting the failures of the government,” commented RJD parliamentarian Manoj Jha.

Congress spokesperson Premchndra Mishra described it as anti-democratic, adding he was apprehensive that this order could be misused. “In a democracy, everybody holds the rights to put forward his views and make healthy comments. We are wondering why the government is scared of people’s criticism?” asked Mishra.

The ruling Janata Dal United (JD-U) defended the government’s order saying everyone had the right to express but the use of defamatory language or running misinformation campaign is certainly not allowed. “Tejashwi must understand that this order will not only benefit the ruling party but also the opposition,” state JD-U spokesperson Sanjay Singh said.