Bombay High Court: A Division Bench of Ujjal Bhuyan and Riyaz I. Chagla, JJ. while observing the matter in regard to quashing of FIR against Republic TV’s Editor-in-Chief, Arnab Goswami, Court held that,
“Seventy years into our republic we cannot be seen to be skating on thin ice so much so that mere mention of a place of worship will lead to animosity or hatred amongst religious communities causing upheaval and conflagration on the streets.”
Present petition was filed to seek stay on all the proceedings in FIR filed against Arnab Goswami/ petitioner and no coercive action/steps to be taken by respondents 1, 5 and 6.
Following the broadcasts on Republic TV dated 16-4-2020 and on R Bharat dated 21-4-2020, multiple FIR’s and criminal complaints were lodged against the petitioner — Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV and the Managing Director of ARG Outlier Media Asia net News Private Limited which owns and operates R Bharat.
The broadcasts were in regard to an incident that occurred in Palghar District of Maharashtra wherein 3 persons including 2 sadhus were brutally killed by mob, allegedly in the presence of police and forest guard personnel. In the said broadcasts, petitioner had raised issues with regard to the tardy investigation of the incident.
Petitioner claimed that the Indian National Congress had after the said broadcast launched a “well coordinated, widespread, vindictive and malicious campaign” against him.
The said campaign by the INC was carried out through various news reports, tweets and multiple complaints against the petitioner seeking investigation into offences alleged to have been committed by him under Sections 153, 153-A, 153-B, 295-A, 500, 504, 506 and 120-B of the Penal Code, 1860. Campaign on social media using the hashtag — #ArrestAntiIndiaArnab was also doing rounds.
To affirm his claim, the petitioner also stated that the FIRs and complaints were lodged in the State where the Governments were formed owing allegiance to the INC.
Petitioner refused any propagation of communal views being broadcasted by him on the news channel that gave rise to the numerous complaints. Asserting his fundamental right to the Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, the petitioner approached the Court seeking protection.
Another petition was filed which was occasioned by registration of an FIR against the petitioner on 2nd May 2020 wherein it was stated that the petitioner had on 29th April 2020 made certain statements on his broadcast on R Bharat that “people belonging to Muslim religion are responsible for COVID-19 spread.”
Petitioner had moved the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India for quashing the FIR.
Supreme Court had issued the following directions in it’s Order:
- Prayer to transfer the investigation to CBI is rejected.
- Protection against coercive action granted to Arnab Goswami to continue for a period of 3 weeks to enable him to pursue remedies available in law.
- FIR which has now been numbered as 164 of 2020 shall be investigated by the NM Joshi Marg Police Station in Mumbai.
- Prayer for quashing FIR No. 164 of 2020 under Article 32 rejected.
- The FIR does not cover the offence of defamation under Section 499 IPC, hence will not form subject matter of the investigation.
- All FIRs except FIR No. 164 of 2020 at NM Joshi Police Station are quashed.
- No other FIR or, as the case may be, complaint shall be initiated or pursued in any other forum in respect of the same cause of action emanating from the broadcast on 21 April 2020 by the petitioner on R Bharat.
- Based on the threat perception, CP (Mumbai) may provide police protection to Arnab Goswami if it is considered appropriate and for the period during which the threat perception continues.
- Nothing in the present judgment to be considered as an expression on merits of the allegations in the FIRs.
Thereafter the present petition has been filed seeking certain reliefs.
Decision and Analysis
Bench firstly adverted to the Supreme Court’s decision in the present matter on 19th may, 2020, wherein the core issue was the lodging of multiple FIRs and complaints against the petitioner in various states arising from the same cause of action.
Supreme Court had stated that the manner in which the petitioner was subjected to numerous FIRs in several states besides the UT of J&K on the basis of identical allegations arising out of the same television show would leave no manner of doubt that its intervention was necessary to protect the rights of the petitioner as a citizen and as a journalist to a fair treatment.
In such a situation to require the petitioner to approach the jurisdictional High Courts for quashing of the FIRs would result in a multiplicity of proceedings and unnecessary harassment to the petitioner.
It was categorically held that all other FIRs in respect of the same incident constitute a clear abuse of the process and must be quashed.
Accordingly, all the other FIRs numbering 14 were quashed, further making it clear that no other FIR or complaint shall be initiated or pursued in any other forum in respect of the same cause of action.
Supreme Court did not express any opinion on the two impugned FIRs and that is how the challenge to the 2 FIRs has been placed before the High Court.
In the Supreme Court decision of State of Karnataka v. Muniswamy, (1977) 2 SCC 699, following was observed:
“…saving of the High Court’s inherent powers is designed to achieve a salutary public purpose; in a criminal case the veiled object behind a lame prosecution, the very nature of the material on which the structure of the prosecution rests and the like would justify the High Court in quashing the proceeding in the interest of justice.”
Complaint has to be read as a whole. If it appears that on consideration of the allegations in the light of the statement made on oath of the complainant that the ingredients of the offence or offences are disclosed and there is no material to show that the complaint is mala fide, frivolous or vexatious, in that event there would be no justification for interference by the High Court.
Common thread alluded to the Sections that have been mentioned in the FIRs are with regard to promoting or attempting to promote disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious groups or communities etc.
Decoding the FIRs
According to the informant, petitioner had made a statement like two Hindu Sadhus were killed and asked whether in a country where 80% of the population are Hindus, is it a sin to be a Hindu or to wear saffron.
In contradistinction he asked whether Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party would have kept quiet if a Maulvi or Padri was killed. Then petitioner launched an attack on the foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi; asking whether “these people” thought that Hindus will keep quiet.
It is quite clear from the above stated that the target of the petitioner’s attack was primarily Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party.
There was no mentioning of either the Muslim community or the Christian community. It would be too far- fetched to say that two religious communities were involved in the debate. As a matter of fact, there was no reference to the Muslim community or to the Christian community.
In Court’s opinion, if the transcript together with the first information are read as a whole, it was not found that any statement made by the petitioner which can be construed to be against the Muslim community or Christian community.
In such circumstances, it cannot be said that any offence has been committed by the petitioner of provoking rioting or promoting or attempting to promote, on the grounds of religion, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious groups which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious groups or which disturbs or is likely to disturb public tranquility, thus prejudicial to national integrity.
Neither any statement nor the conduct of the petitioner can be said to have been made deliberately and with malicious intention to outrage the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India or insulting any religion or religious beliefs of that class of citizens.
On an overall consideration, Court’s prima facie view was that the FIR No. 164 of 2020 did not make out commission of any criminal offence by the petitioner.
FIR No. 137 of 2020
Contents of this FIR were made by the officer in charge of Pydhonie Police Station, that petitioner had hatched criminal conspiracy in the programme of R. Bharat connecting Jama Masjid, Bandra with the crowd gathered near Bandra railway station thus making objectionable statements and hurting the religious feelings of the Muslim community; petitioner created religious hatred between two communities and increased enmity between them by insulting Muslim religion and their religious feelings; with the objective of committing communal atrocity, petitioner defamed the Muslim community.
According to the informant, petitioner had stated that at a little distance there was Jama Masjid in Bandra; near this Jama Masjid suddenly thousands of people had gathered. Then petitioner posed the question as to who had gathered the crowd near the masjid in Bandra and why every crowd gathering during the lockdown was near a masjid.
Petitioner tried to create the impression that Muslim community is violent and is not following any kind of law. Thus it was alleged that petitioner had hatched a conspiracy with the objective of creating hatred amongst Hindu and Muslim communities.
Court in the above-mentioned regard stated that it would be wrong to say that petitioner had made the statements in the broadcast with a view to defame or insult the feelings of any religious group or community. The tenor of the programme was petitioner trying to find out as to who were the people or which were the forces trying to derail or defeat the lockdown and encouraging violation of social distancing norms.
Bench referred to the Supreme Court’ observations that,
India’s freedoms will rest safe as long as journalists can speak to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal; free citizens cannot exist when the news media is chained to adhere to one position.
We cannot have the spectacle of a Damocles’ sword hanging over the head of a journalist while conducting a public debate.
Beyond the above observations and analysis, Court did not comment further on the matter and passed the following orders:
- Petition is admitted for hearing;
- Issuance of notice stands obviated. However, office of the Attorney General for India be notified as regards challenge to vires of Sections 153A and 153B(1) IPC.
- All further proceedings in FIR No.164 of 2020 before the N. M. Joshi Marg Police Station, Mumbai and FIR No.137 of 2020 before the Pydhonie Police Station, Mumbai shall remain suspended
- Interim order passed on 9th June, 2020 to the effect that no coercive steps shall be taken against the petitioner vis-a-vis the above 2 FIRs shall continue till disposal of the petition. [Arnab Ranjan Goswami v. State of Maharashtra, Criminal WP LD-VC-No. 37 of 2020, decided on 30-06-2020]