NEW DELHI -- When the right-wing Hindu political leader Bal K. Thackeray died last weekend, the city of Mumbai responded with a practiced, if anxious, efficiency. Merchants hurriedly closed their shops. Traffic thickened as people tried to rush home. India's most populous city, a global financial center and moviemaking capital, was effectively shut down.
Shaheen Dhada, 21, a medical student who lives on the outskirts of Mumbai, was a bit annoyed. Like most people, she understood what was happening: Mr. Thackeray's hard-line Shiv Sena party has dominated Mumbai for decades, often using intimidation, violence or vandalism to enforce citywide strikes or bans against certain movies. This time, Shiv Sena wanted a citywide signal of deference and respect for Mr. Thackeray.
Ms. Dhada decided to post a mild message of protest on her Facebook page.
Why, she asked, should an entire city be involuntarily shuttered to mark the death of a politician? Her friend, Renu Srinivasan, 20, read the post and hit "like."
The post went up on Sunday. Within hours, a Shiv Sena official had complained to the police, who notified Ms. Dhada's family. Intimidated, she quickly posted an apology and closed her Facebook account, her lawyer said. But by Monday, Ms. Dhada and Ms. Srinivasan had been arrested and charged with engaging in speech that was offensive and hateful -- for a post that many experts say was neither.
India is often regarded as one of the world's most freewheeling democracies, where citizens are forever voicing their opinions or participating in political protests. But the Facebook arrests have spiraled into a national controversy about the limits on free speech, the broad discretion granted to the authorities to curb online commentary and the professionalism of an Indian police force often beholden to political parties.
"We have bad laws when it comes to regulation of speech," said Pranesh Prakash, policy director of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore. "Some types of speech are illegal online even though they are perfectly legal in print or other media."
For many of Ms. Dhada's supporters, the case reeks of systemic hypocrisy.
When the police received the complaint from a local Shiv Sena chief on Sunday evening, officers acted rapidly, calling Ms. Dhada's uncle, a physician, and demanding that his niece apologize. In the complaint, Ms. Dhada's lawyer said, Shiv Sena declared that the post by Ms. Dhada -- a Muslim -- had disrespected the Hindu religion as well as Mr. Thackeray, whom Shiv Sena regarded as a Hindu god.
Yet less than an hour after the complaint was filed, Shiv Sena supporters vandalized an orthopedic hospital owned by Ms. Dhada's uncle, who later filed a police complaint. "A mob of 400 or 500 persons ransacked the hospital," said Sudhir Gupta, the lawyer for Ms. Dhada. "The police failed to protect the hospital."
Social media have served as a primary channel of criticism about Ms. Dhada's arrest, with tens of thousands of comments made on Twitter and Facebook. Much of the criticism voiced online and by legal experts has focused on the Information Technology Act of 2008. The law was overhauled after the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai to grant the government broader powers to combat cybercrime, among other things.
Yet many critics and legal experts argue that politicians, in some cases, are using the broad language to stifle dissent. This month, a man in southern India, writing on Twitter, suggested that the son of India's finance minister had amassed huge wealth through corruption. The minister's son filed a complaint with the local police, who quickly arrested the author of the Twitter comment.
"The law is so broad, it gives unbridled power to the authorities to register a case," said Pavan Duggal, a lawyer who practices before India's Supreme Court and specializes in Internet law. "It leaves everything to the subjective discretion of the law enforcement authorities."
In her Facebook post, Ms. Dhada questioned the public frenzy over Mr. Thackeray's death and noted that, by comparison, several of the freedom fighters of India's independence movement have mostly been forgotten.
"With all respect," she began, according to a transcription in The Hindu, a leading national newspaper, "every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians?
"Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced," she concluded. "Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect."
Mr. Thackeray, who died Saturday at age 86, left a controversial legacy. He once spoke admiringly of Hitler and won power in Mumbai by playing to the grievances of the local Marathi population, while disparaging outsiders. His Shiv Sena cadres were often toughs and roughnecks; an official inquiry blamed Mr. Thackeray and his supporters for provoking riots that broke out in 1992 and led to the deaths of about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. No official action was ever taken against him.
His funeral rites and public cremation ceremony were attended by tens of thousands of people, including movie stars and some of the country's leading politicians. While some Indian newspapers carried critical commentaries of Mr. Thackeray's career, much of the nonstop weekend coverage on India's television news channels was far tamer, in some cases adulatory. Even former political enemies, perhaps not wishing to speak ill of the dead, offered praise.
As for Ms. Dhada and Ms. Srinivasan, they were released on bail on Monday. The case has stirred so much condemnation that the top police official in Mumbai ordered an investigation into the arrests.
For now, though, the two young women must await their first hearings in court.
Niharika Mandhana, Sruthi Gottipati and Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.