“Free speech of the citizens of this country cannot be stifled by implicating them in criminal cases”; Supreme Court quashes FIR against Shillong Times Editor Patricia Mukhim

“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.”

Supreme Court: The division bench of L. Nageswara Rao* and S. Ravindra Bhat, JJ has quashed the criminal case registered against Shillong Times Editor Patricia Mukhim under Sections 153 A, 500 and 505 (1) (c) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Why was the case registered against Mukhim?

Last year, 25 unidentified boys had assaulted youngsters playing basketball in Block 4, Lawsohtun with iron rods and sticks, after which, Mukhim had, in a Facebook Post, written,

“Conrad Sangma CM Meghalaya, what happened yesterday at Lawsohtun where some Non-Tribal youth playing Basketball were assaulted with lethal weapons and are now in Hospital, is unacceptable in a state with a Government and a functional Police Force.

(…)

The fact that such attacker and trouble mongers since 1979 have never been arrested and if arrested never penalized according to law suggests that Meghalaya has been a failed State for a long time now.

(…)

We hope that this will not be yet another case lost in the Police files. We want action. Criminal elements have no community. They must be dealt with as per the law of the land. Why should our Non-Tribal brethren continue to live in perpetual fear in their own state? Those born and brought up here have as much right to call Meghalaya their State as the indigenous Tribal does. Period”

Following this, the Headman and the Secretary, Dorbar Shnong, Lawsohtun, Shillong filed a complaint that the statement made by the Appellant on Facebook incited communal tension which might instigate a communal conflict.

The Appellant filed a petition in the High Court of Meghalaya for quashing the FIR. The High Court, however, by its judgment dated 10.11.2020 dismissed the said petition.

Analysis

What does the law state?

Freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution is a very valuable fundamental right. However, the right is not absolute. Reasonable restrictions can be placed on the right of free speech and expression in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of Court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

However, speech crime is punishable under Section 153 A IPC. Promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language etc. and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony is punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with fine or with both under Section 153 A.

“Only where the written or spoken words have the tendency of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order or affecting public tranquility, the law needs to step in to prevent such an activity. The intention to cause disorder or incite people to violence is the sine qua non of the offence under Section 153 A IPC and the prosecution has to prove the existence of mens rea in order to succeed.”

The gist of the offence under Section 153 A IPC is the intention to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of people. The intention has to be judged primarily by the language of the piece of writing and the circumstances in which it was written and published. The matter complained of within the ambit of Section 153A must be read as a whole.

“One cannot rely on strongly worded and isolated passages for proving the charge nor indeed can one take a sentence here and a sentence there and connect them by a meticulous process of inferential reasoning.”

Did Patricia Mukhim’s post incite communal tension?

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. 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.”

After scrutinising the Facebook post, the Court noticed 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-tribals youngsters. The Appellant referred to the attacks on nontribals in 1979.

“At the most, the Facebook post can be understood to highlight the discrimination against nontribals in the State of Meghalaya.”

The Court noticed that the Facebook post read in its entirety 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.”

The attack upon six non-locals, carried out by masked individuals, is not denied by the State; its reporting too is not denied. The State in fact issued a press release. 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 the State of 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 Court, hence, held that no case was made out against Mukhim for an offence under Section 153 A and 505 (1) (c) IPC.

[Patricia Mukhim v. State of Meghalaya, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 258, decided on 25.03.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice L. Nageswara Rao

Appearances before the Court by:

For Patricia Mukhim: Counsel Vrinda Grover

For State of Meghalaya: Counsel Avijit Mani Tripathi

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