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'Chowkidar Chor' Comment Part Of Political Debate : Rahul Gandhi Moves Bombay HC To Quash Defamation Case

Sharmeen Hakim
17 Nov 2021 11:01 AM GMT
Chowkidar Chor Comment Part Of Political Debate : Rahul Gandhi Moves Bombay HC To Quash Defamation Case
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It is argued that criminal defamation cases will discourage political debates, which form the lifeblood of democracy.

Invoking the right to freedom of speech & expression, citing competing interests of political parties and right to political debate, former Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi has approached the Bombay High Court to quash the issuance of summons to him in a defamation case. A Metropolitan Magistrate's court at Mumbai had issued process in 2019 against Gandhi in a...

Invoking the right to freedom of speech & expression, citing competing interests of political parties and right to political debate, former Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi has approached the Bombay High Court to quash the issuance of summons to him in a defamation case.

A Metropolitan Magistrate's court at Mumbai had issued process in 2019 against Gandhi in a defamation case filed one Mahesh Shrishrimal, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the alliance government at the Centre.

The complaint cites Gandhi's public addresses, social media posts and newspaper reports quoting Gandhi for his comments against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The complainant has called Gandhi's remarks like "chowkidaar chor hai", "choron ka sardar" and "Commander-in-Thief" from 2019 as defamatory for the entire political party and therefore has sought to prosecute Gandhi under section 500 of the Indian Penal Code.

According to Gandhi's petition before the High Court the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression protects criticism of opposite person, unless any statement was made with actual malice, which means the statement was "by knowledge and made with reckless disregard whether it was false or not."

The petition also states, "The public figures play an influential role in ordering society and the public figures have access to mass media communication, both to influence the police and to counter criticism of their views and activities. In the circumstances, the citizens have a legitimate and the substantial interest in the context of such person and the freedom of speech and expression extends to engaging in uninhibited debate about the involvement of public figure in public issues and events."

It further read that, "In a democracy, political debate is the lifeblood of the country and such debate should be encouraged rather than curtailed by frivolous complaints filed in name of defamation. In a democratic set- up, competing interests of political parties are the order of the day and the imputations made by one political party against the other with a zealous color of political debate need not fall within the rigors as defined in Section 499/500 IPC. Moreover, in a political environment, the members of the political parties get an opportunity to rebut the imputations by means of a political speech and the resort to criminal action in defamation case is far-fetched and discourages political debate."

It further argues that when the subject matter is a question in public domain and envisages a raging political debate and there are opinions on both sides, it would not fall under the category of defamation.

The petition also questions the locus of the complainant, saying the complaint itself mentions that the alleged comments were directed towards the Prime Minister – who is not the President of the party he belongs to – therefore the complainant cannot make a grievance of defamation for the entire party or its members.

Moreover, the petition argues, the complainant has not been able to show that he was referred to any of the alleged defamatory statements, the petition states. "The individual interest of the Complainant under the guise of reputation cannot have supremacy over the larger public interest, for the dominant interest in a democracy is the collective interest and not the perspective individualism," it reads.

Calling the complaint as a classic example of vexatious litigation, Gandhi's petition states that he (Gandhi) is exposed to frivolous and vexatious litigations by his political adversaries due to his standing as an elected Member of Parliament. "The instant complaint is a classic example of a frivolous and vexatious litigation, motivated by the sole purpose of furthering one's own latent political agenda," it reads.

Yet another argument put forth by the petition is that a defamation case can be filed only by a "person aggrieved" and even if a sub-section allows a case to be filed by 'an association or collection of persons', it will come into play only if such collection of persons is a definite and determinable body. "In the present case the Bharatiya Janta Party being a very large political party is an unascertainable body of persons, and therefore, no member of that body could say that he was individually defamed on account of the imputations," the petition argues.

Referring to the Metropolitan Magistrate's order issuing process against Gandhi, the petition states that the order is passed mechanically "and does not even contain the minimum reasoning as would be required for issuing process against any person."

It further contends that, "The Ld. Magistrate therefore ought to have observed that the alleged tweet at Exhibit C does not mention the Hon'ble Prime Minister of India in any way and thus could not have been said to be defaming him. The Ld. Magistrate further ought to have considered that the complaint is nothing but a product of the Complainant's imagination and in any event, assuming without admitting that the said tweet was directed towards the Hon'ble Prime Minister, the instant complaint would still not have been maintainable."


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