Updated: March 26, 2021 7:25:53 am
Expressing disapproval of a government’s action “cannot be branded as an attempt to promote hatred between different communities”, the Supreme Court said Thursday while quashing an FIR against Patricia Mukhim, the editor of Shillong Times, over a social media post about an incident of assault on some non-tribal youth in Meghalaya last year.
A bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat also said that “free speech of the citizens of this country cannot be stifled by implicating them in criminal cases, unless such speech has the tendency to affect public order”.
According to case records, Mukhim’s post on July 4, 2020, described the previous day’s attack on the youth, who were playing basketball, “at Lawsohtun…unacceptable”. In the post, she demanded that “the attackers allegedly tribal boys with masks on…should be immediately booked”.
Following this, the Headman and Secretary of the Dorbar Shnong (traditional Khasi village governing body) in Lawsohtun filed a complaint with the East Khasi Hills police alleging that the post “incited communal tension which might instigate a communal conflict”. Subsequently, a case was registered under IPC sections 153A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion), 500 (defamation) and 505(1)(c) (public mischief).
Mukhim’s plea to quash the FIR was dismissed by the Meghalaya High Court, which “was of the opinion that reference to the attack on the non-tribals in the State…by the tribals has propensity to cause a rift between two communities” and therefore a “prima facie an offence under Section 153 A IPC was made out”.
On appeal, the Supreme Court bench disagreed with the High Court. It said that “a close scrutiny of the Facebook post would indicate that the agony of the Appellant was directed against the apathy shown by the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, the Director General of Police and the Dorbar Shnong of the area in not taking any action against the culprits who attacked the non-tribal youngsters”.
The bench said: “At the most, the Facebook post can be understood to highlight the discrimination against non-tribals in the State of Meghalaya. However, the Appellant made it clear that criminal elements have no community and immediate action has to be taken against persons who had indulged in the brutal attack…”
The bench said that when “read in its entirety”, the post “pleads for equality of non-tribals in the State of Meghalaya”.
“In our understanding, there was no intention on the part of the Appellant to promote class/ community hatred. As there is no attempt made by the Appellant to incite people belonging to a community to indulge in any violence, the basic ingredients of the offence under Sections 153 A and 505 (1) (c) have not been made out,” it said.
“Where allegations made in the FIR or the complaint, even if they are taken on their face value and accepted in their entirety, do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out a case against the accused, the FIR is liable to be quashed,” the bench ordered.
Elaborating on the larger issue involved, the apex court said: “India is a plural and multicultural society. The promise of liberty, enunciated in the Preamble, manifests itself in various provisions which outline each citizen’s rights; they include the right to free speech, to travel freely and settle (subject to such reasonable restrictions that may be validly enacted) throughout the length and breadth of India.”
It said: “At times, when in the legitimate exercise of such a right, individuals travel, settle down or carry on a vocation in a place where they find conditions conducive, there may be resentments, especially if such citizens prosper, leading to hostility or possibly violence. In such instances, if the victims voice their discontent, and speak out, especially if the state authorities turn a blind eye, or drag their feet, such voicing of discontent is really a cry for anguish, for justice denied — or delayed. This is exactly what appears to have happened in this case.”
Noting that the state had not denied the attack by “masked individuals”, the bench said “there appears to be no headway in the investigations”.
“The complaint made by the Dorbar Shnong, Lawsohtun, that the statement of the Appellant would incite communal tension and might instigate a communal conflict in the entire State is only a figment of imagination. The fervent plea made by the Appellant for protection of non-tribals living in… Meghalaya and for their equality cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be categorized as hate speech. It was a call for justice — for action according to law, which every citizen has a right to expect and articulate,” the Supreme Court ruled.
As soon as the verdict was delivered, Mukhim took to Facebook to thank her lawyers, including Advocate Vrinda Grover. She wrote: “So grateful for this ruling… You realise the power of social media when the highest court of the land analyses what you write and gives a well-considered ruling based on sound legal points…Deeply humbled.” — (With ENS Guwahati)
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