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In India, a Facebook and Free-Speech Debate

An online comment on a dead politician leads to an uproar
Shaheen Dhada (left) and a friend were charged for her critique of Bal Thackeray
Shaheen Dhada (left) and a friend were charged for her critique of Bal ThackerayAP Photo

It started with a comment on Facebook. On Nov. 17, Bal Thackeray, leader of the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena, died in Mumbai. The party’s members often clash with Muslims and are known for their street brawling. When their leader died, party stalwarts told Mumbai’s merchants to shut their stores the next day out of respect for Thackeray. At 7 p.m. on Nov. 18, Shaheen Dhada, a member of a prominent Muslim family in the town of Palghar, commented on her Facebook wall about Thackeray and whether he deserved such special treatment. “Today,” Dhada wrote in conclusion, “Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect!”

Only her Facebook friends immediately saw the message, but someone must have shown it to local members of Shiv Sena. Within 25 minutes a man phoned the 21-year-old and asked whether she thought what she posted was right. Shaken, she deleted the post and put up an apology.