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Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India

Bench: Justice Dipak Misra and Justice P. C. Pant

PETITIONER: Subramanian Swamy

RESPONDENT: Union of India, Ministry of Law and ors.


Dr. Subramanian Swamy brought a corruption allegation against Ms. Jayalathitha than CM of Tamil Nadu in 2014. The Tamil Nadu State Government filed defamation suits against Dr. Subramanian Swamy in reaction to these charges. Dr. Swamy and other legislators then questioned the validity of India's criminal defamation provision, through the writ petition under Article 32, which includes Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Sections 199(1) to 199(4) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The case was decided by a twojudge Supreme Court bench.

This was a watershed moment in the history of criminal defamation prosecutions. It was also the first time the Supreme Court heard a direct challenge to the validity of one of the earliest and perhaps most stringent speech-restriction statutes, criminal defamation.


whether the concept of criminal defamation is a superfluous restraint on freedom of speech and expression

whether Section 499 and Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 were vaguely and capriciously drafted.


The Petitioner's counsel contended that the idea defined in Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution is quite wide and that limitations can be placed on it. However, these constraints must be carefully crafted to be as restricted as possible.

Defamation, per the council, is a civil wrong committed in personam. As a result, Section 499 is beyond the purview of Article 19(2) of the Constitution, as it falls outside the ambit of Fundamental Rights, that is bestowed in the public interest.

defamation of any individual by a private individual is a component of a private right within Article 21, it could not be classified as a "crime," because it serves no interests of the public, and its incorporation as a crime under the law that protects in rem rights would indeed be unconstitutional.

The Petitioner's counsel further argued that because Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 falls outside the common public's interests, it operates beyond the purview of Article 19(2) reasonable limits set out by the Indian Constitution. As a result, it argued that if legislation violates a person's right to speak the truth, it must be ruled unconstitutional. The criterion of demonstrating that a defamatory remark was made for the public interest is similarly unreasonable.


The Attorney General, who represented the Respondents, claimed that the limits within Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution should not be read in solitude but rather in context with Article 19(1)(a) because Article 19(1)(a) is not a stand-alone and inalienable right, it can be limited. He rejected the petitioner's ineffective division between private and public wrongs by defining the public wrong as something that harms both the public and the polity as a whole.

The Respondent's counsel stated that reputational loss could not always be paid in monetary terms, and that, in light of this, the Right to Reputation cannot be isolated as from Right to Dignity, which comes under the jurisdiction of Article 21. right to reputation is an indispensable part of an individual’s personality which is protected by Article 21. Freedom of Speech and Expression and the Right to Offend separated by the Right to Reputation

If the limits in Article 19(2) are interpreted in solitude rather than in conjunction with Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the entire aim of imposing reasonable restrictions would be thwarted because there is no alternative legal mechanism to safeguard Section 499 against constitutional challenge.


The court, in deciding the case, looked at a number of precedents, such as Gian Kaur v. the State of Punjab (1996) and Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay v. Dilip Kumar Raghavendranath Nadkarni and others (1983), before concluding that the right to reputation should be included under Article 21. Concerning the exaggeration of 'defamation' within the restrictions of Article 19(1)(a), the court cited Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's speech and noted that the drafters intended to incorporate reasonable restrictions on free speech and expression through Article 19(2) without explicitly defining the terms like 'defamation,' 'public order,' and so on, leaving it to the courts to determine what might comprise a limitation and what would not.

While considering the validity of Statute 499 and its exclusions one at a time, the court said unequivocally that there is no ambiguity in the entire section. The court dismissed the petitioner's contention about the 'public good,' concluding that what constitutes a public good is a question of fact that must be decided in a case-by-case manner.

As a result, the Supreme Court maintained the legality of the criminal offense of defamation under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The Court based its decision on other nations' rulings on the subject, concluding that the Right to Reputation falls within Article 21 of the Indian Constitution's Right to Life.

The Supreme Court struck down claims to the constitutional legitimacy of the Indian judicial system's criminal defamation offense.

Decision overview

Justice Dipak Misra rendered the decision in the suit, while Justice Prafulla C. Pant concurred with him. it was a thorough judgement that deeply analyzed the interpretation of the words 'defamation' and reputation,' and also their connection with the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression protected by the Indian Constitution.

Following consideration of numerous precedents, the Court determined that each of these phrases was explicit and unambiguous. Furthermore, the Court stated that 'Reputation' as a notion is an element of the protection of 'Dignity,' which is covered in Article 21, which is the Right to Life and Personal Liberty.

The court took this case as an opportunity to accentuate the sacredness and significance of the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression in a democracy. The Court found out that right is open to legitimate limitations but such limits should not be excessive, and they should benefit the society. The regulation that enforces such limits should never be capricious and must not infringe on people's rights. As a result, a proportion must be struck among the right to freedom of speech and expression and the limitations placed on it.

The Court stated that attribution may only be considered defamation if it explicitly or implicitly undermines a person's reputation or credibility in the eyes of others. In this decision, the Court said that truth may be used as a defense in cases of defamation if the derogatory remark was delivered in the interest of the public. As a result, the Court concluded that a defamatory comment uttered only to disparage a person, even though it's true should not be entitled to protection.

The rationality and proportionality of a constraint on freedom of speech and expression are not to be judged from the perspective of the individual who is subjected to such limitations. However, this is evaluated by looking at the viewpoint of the general public's interest. Courts were left to judge what constituted a reasonable limitation, therefore concepts like "defamation" and "public order" were not specified precisely.

This article is written by Pratham Bagani of Fergusson College.

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1989 AIR 2039, 1989 SCR (3) 997 BENCH: MISRA RANGNATH OZA, G.L. (J) PETITIONER: Parmanand Katara, Human Rights Activist RESPONDENT: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Indian Medical Council, India


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