AMISH DEVGAN VS. UNION OF INDIA, (2021) 1 SCC 1

Case name- Amish Devgan v. Union of India

Case no.- Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 160 of 2020

Equivalent Citations- (2021) 1 SCC 1, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 994, (2021) 1 SCC (Cri) 247

Court- Supreme Court of India (Criminal Original Jurisdiction)

Bench- A. M. Khanwilkar and Sanjiv Khanna, JJ.

Petitioner- Amish Devgan

Respondent- Union of India & Others

Judgment Date- 7th December, 2020



INTRODUCTION

The present case shares similarity in facts and circumstances with the recent case of Arnab Ranjan Goswami v. Union of India1 case where a journalist is accused of hurting religious sentiments and indulging in hate speech with the intent to disrupt communal peace. The case is of particular importance because the FIRs registered against the accused were filed under Sec. 295A of the IPC which, in its present form, can be construed as the closest law provision in India towards the concept of Religious Blasphemy.

Indian state declares itself as ‘Democratic’ as well as ‘Secular’ in the preamble of constitution. Accordingly, there is a constant tussle between democratic principle of ‘Free speech’ and the secular principle of ‘Criminalization of hate speech against a particular religion or community’.

This case gives quite an understanding of the psychology of Indian Judiciary as to how it distinguishes and balances these 2 concepts.



FACTS OF THE CASE

1. Petitioner was a journalist and managing director of several news channels operated by TV18 broadcast limited. He hosted a debate show named ‘Aar Paar’ on 15th June 2020 on the issue of challenge of ‘The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991’ before the Supreme Court.

2. Post this telecast, many FIRs were registered against the petitioner in various states under sections 153A, 295A and 505(2) of the IPC and sec. 66-F of Information Technology Act, 2000 on the contention that- the petitioner had described Pir Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, a Muslim pious saint as “aakrantak” (terrorist) and “lootera” (robber) during the debate show. The petitioner filed writ petition under Article 32 of the constitution of India for issue of writ of certiorari for quashing of FIRs against him.


ISSUES OF THE CASE

1. Whether the FIRs against the petitioner be quashed?



CONTENTIONS OF PETITIONER

1. Petitioner, while accepting to have uttered the defamatory words for the Saint, claimed that the words were uttered inadvertently and by mistake as he wanted to refer to Allauddin Khilji and not Chisti. And he has apologised for the same on multiple occasions and platforms.

2. Multiple FIRs arising out of the same incident are abuse of law which are violative of the petitioner's fundamental rights of freedom of press, freedom of speech and expression.

3. Since the utterance was by mistake, there is no mens rea or malicious intent to outrage religious sentiments is present. As a result, FIRs filed for offences do not hold ground and hence be squashed and alternatively, the case falls under Sec, 95 of the IPC i.e. case of trifle or minor harm.

4. FIRs are registered in the place where no ‘Cause of action’ arose. Hence, they are not maintainable.



CONTENTIONS OF RESPONDENT

1. Petitioner is a habitual offender. He had repeated the words “aakrantak Chisti aya” twice followed by words “lootera Chisti aya”. Uttering such offending words thrice shows his ill intentions of creating disharmony between two faiths to incite disharmony.

2. The petition needs to be dismissed as Article 32 is invoked in cavalier manner especially when remedy under sec. 482 of CrPC was already available to petitioner.

3. The conduct of the petitioner was against the norms of journalistic standards.

4. The apology is an afterthought and done for self-defence and hence not genuine. Apology would not dilute the offence. Rather, apology is an implied indication of the act of commission.



OBITER DICTA

The court made extensive observations into balancing ‘Hate Speech’ and ‘Free Speech’. However, the court expressly mentioned that its observations of facts of the case should not influence investigation. Some of the notable observations of the court are as follows-

1. In case of dissent of the elected government’s policies, even deceptive and false statements will not attract penal action, though such statements would be ethically wrong.

2. A speech by a ‘person of influence’ carries far more credibility and impact than a statement made by a common person.


Further, the court while interpreting Sec. 295A of IPC made following observation-

1. Criminality would not include insults to religion offered unwittingly, carelessly or without deliberate or malicious intent to outrage religious feelings.



JUDGMENT IN POINTS

1. Petitioner’s contention that FIRs should be quashed because they were registered at places where there was no ‘Cause of action’ was rejected as the debate program was broadcasted on a widely viewed television network.

2. Petitioner’s defence under Sec. 95 of IPC i.e., causing slight harm was not entertained.

3. The court refused to quash FIRs filed against the petitioner on the basis that doing so would stall investigation.

4. However, the court granted petitioner interim relief against arrest subject to his cooperating in investigation.

5. The court also directed to transfer multiple FIRs filed at different states against petitioner to the place where first FIR was filed.



RATIO DECIDENDI

1. Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution cannot be pressed into service for defeating the fundamental right guaranteed by Article 21. If one claims right to speech, the others have the right to listen or decline to listen.

2. There cannot be a second FIR where the information concerns the same cognizable offence alleged in the first FIR or the same occurrence or incident which gives rise to one or more cognizable offences.



CONCLUSION

There have been numerous judgments, including this one, which give rise to the issue of the vagueness of sec. 295A aids in misinterpreting the same as ‘Blasphemy’ law. There is no common ground, in my opinion, that could be drawn between different communities, that could define or predict how and when religious sentiments will get ‘hurt’. Though the judgment makes observations on this issue, the same are not in the form of ratio decidendi and hence only an amendment and narrowing of scope of the section can give a definite conclusion to this constant tussle between ‘Free speech’ and ‘Hate speech’ which would really help in reduction in cases before Indian Judiciary as such instances are now a common sight owing to social media and technological advancement.



REFERENCES

Original Judgment of Amish Devgan v. Union of India, penned by Justice Sanjiv Khanna

Accessed through-

  1. https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Amigh-Devgn-v-UoI-Justice-Khanna-Hate-Speech.pdf

  2. Indian Kanoon portal, <https://indiankanoon.org/doc/179868451/> accessed on 22.06.2022

Footnotes

1. (2020) SCC OnLine SC 462



Legislations

  1. Constitution of India

  2. Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

  3. Indian Penal Code, 1860


Case Laws

  1. Amish Devgan v. Union of India, (2021) 1 SCC 1

  2. Arnab Ranjan Goswami v. Union of India1 (2020) SCC OnLine SC 462



Articles/ Blogs

  1. Nikita Prakash, “Analysis: Amish Devgan case” (Lexlife India, 10 August 2020), <https://lexlife.in/2020/08/10/analysis-amish-devgan-case/> accessed 26 June 2022.

  2. Prachi Bharadwaj, “Freedom & rights cannot armour those who promote & incite violence| 15 notable excerpts on ‘hate speech’ from Supreme Court’s verdict in Amish Devgan case” (SCCOnline, 8 December 2020), <https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2020/12/08/freedom-rights-cannot-armour-those-who-promote-incite-violence-15-notable-excerpts-on-hate-speech-from-supreme-courts-verdict-in-amish-devgan-case/> accessed 22 June 2022

  3. Mani Chander, “Supreme Court’s Curious Judgment in the Amish Devgan Case: Numerous Questions” (The Leaflet, 23 December 2020), <https://theleaflet.in/supreme-courts-curious-judgment-in-the-amish-devgan-case-numerous-questions/> accessed 26 June 2022


This article is written by Utkarsha Deshpande of Kishinchand Chellaram Law College, Mumbai.




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