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Posts Tagged ‘Indian Judiciary’


Under sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, defamation is a criminal offence. Defamatory acts can include “words either spoken or intended to be read”, signs or visible representations, which are published or put up in the public domain. The offence is punishable with up to two years imprisonment, a fine or both.

It is true that ‘defamation’ is one of the reasonable restrictions to free speech envisaged in the Constitution, but this is not enough to justify retaining its criminal component. Article 19(2) of the Constitution permits only “reasonable” restrictions upon the freedom of speech. For a law to be reasonable, it must demonstrate a degree of proportionality between the restriction, and the goal that is sought to be achieved. Criminal defamation fails the proportionality test, in general terms, as well as in the specific legal regime set up by Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code.

In general, criminal defamation is disproportionate because it uses the criminal law to prosecute a wrong that is purely private in nature. A private wrong is one that is purely between the offender and her victim, and has no implications for the society at large. For example, if I fail to control my dog, and it bites you, then you may sue me for compensation in a civil court. Society, the state, and the criminal law have nothing to do with it. However, if I murder a person, then it is not just about one individual taking the life of another, but has ramifications for public peace, order and security. This is why murder is a criminal offence, involves a term in jail, and is prosecuted by the state.

When defamation was first criminalised in medieval England, it had a public purpose. People vindicated insults to their honour by fighting it out in a duel. It was to suppress this kind of self-help regime, and assure people that they did not need to ventilate their grievances with swords and pistols, that defamation was criminalised. But now things have changed.

Many countries, including neighbouring Sri Lanka, have decriminalised defamation, which should be a civil offence alone. The court has unfortunately accepted the self-serving argument by the Centre that criminal defamation does not have a chilling, inhibiting effect on the freedom of expression. In the Indian context, criminal defamation is not generally a dispute between two individuals. It is invariably a shield for public servants, political leaders, corporations and institutions against critical scrutiny as well as questions from the media and citizens.

Subramanian Swamy vs Union of India is a depressing moment for free speech lawyers and activists. It is also (yet another) depressing moment for civil rights lawyers and activists, since it marks a continuing trend – that arguably began with Koushal vs Naz regarding the criminalisation of homosexuality – where two-judge benches decide important civil rights cases. The challenge to the validity of Section 499 and 500 of the IPC was undoubtedly the biggest free speech issue to have arisen in recent times. The two-judge Bench could have referred the matter to a Constitution Bench(a bench of at least five judges).

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Supreme court while striking down the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s decision asking service providers to compensate subscribers for dropped calls, called it “arbitrary, ultra vires, unreasonable and not transparent”. But Trai cannot be faulted for its intent: as the regulator, it should indeed worry about the quality of telecom services. But in its eagerness to be seen as strict on service providers, it overlooked some basic factors.

The first factor TRAI overlooked is that the licence conditions allow up to two per cent of calls to be dropped. But TRAI, in its directive, said that service providers would have to pay consumers for all dropped calls: Re 1 per call, subject to a maximum of three rupees a day. This was a violation of the licence conditions and the Supreme Court rightly saw through it.

The second is that there exists no mechanism in the world to tell a dropped call from voluntary disconnection. The TRAI penalty was open to abuse. It would be perfectly possible for a rogue customer to disconnect a call and then claim compensation. What also contributed to the problem of dropped calls was spectrum migration. The first lot of spectrum was issued for 20 years, after which service providers had to buy it afresh. Many bought spectrum in a different frequency subsequently. This led to customers migrating from one band to another, causing unavoidable technical glitches. It takes up to a year to sort this out. TRAI jumped the gun in imposing the penalty.The dropped-call penalty would have raised the cost of doing business for the service providers. Not only would they have to pay compensation, they would also have to set up call centres to handle compensation claims and maintain an army of lawyers and technical experts to sift through the claims.

The lesson to be learnt by regulators as well as the government is that the quality of any service can improve only when the right inputs are available — a penalty cannot always solve the problem. For instance, penalising the airline need not necessarily address the issue of flight delays; instead, the problem of flight delays could be addressed more effectively by improving the airport infrastructure. Similarly, the issue of clogged telecom networks can be addressed through additional spectrum.

One of the justifications for the penalty was that the service providers had under-invested in equipment and the penalty would bring them to book. But with number portability, and the existence of over half a dozen brands, any service provider that cuts corners and offers poor service is bound to lose customers. In case the service providers collude with fellow service providers to maintain similar levels of service, the matter should be addressed by the Competition Commission. The penalty was never the right solution.

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It is undeniable that the Supreme Court’s role as the Constitution’s sheet anchor has been weakened in recent times. This dilution, at least partly, owes to the court’s inability to devote itself substantially to the determination of important public questions. As Nick Robinson’s studies have demonstrated, the number of cases decided by constitution benches — benches comprising five or more judges — has steadily declined right from the Supreme Court’s inception. Between 1950 and 1954, almost 15 per cent of the total cases decided by the Supreme Court were decisions of constitution benches. By the time the 1970s came around, this figure had dipped below one per cent. Between 2005 and 2009, benches comprising five judges or more decided only a worryingly paltry 0.12 per cent of the court’s total decisions. This has meant that in spite of the specific precepts of Article 145(3) of the Constitution — which mandates that a minimum of five judges sit for the purpose of deciding any case involving a substantial question of constitutional law — division benches of two judges have increasingly decided important disputes requiring a nuanced interpretation of the Constitution.

For example, in December 2013, it was a bench of two judges, in Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation, which reversed the Delhi High Court’s momentous judgment declaring Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, insofar as it criminalised homosexuality, as unconstitutional. Similarly, when last year in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India the Supreme Court struck down the pernicious Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, in the process paving the way for a refined thinking on the right to free speech, it was once again a bench of two judges that rendered the verdict.

What we have, therefore, is a quite unusual scheme of constitutionalism where any given pair of two individuals is vested with the enormous power of ruling conclusively on significant matters of public importance. This phenomenon — still relatively recent — of rulings by two-judge benches in noteworthy cases has coincided with the court’s mounting docket. What’s clearly evident is that this manner of functioning is far from what the Constitution’s framers envisaged of the Supreme Court.

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In second week of February Supreme court issued direction to the two agencies of state – The Reserve Bank of India and the civil aviation ministry.

Hearing PIL writ petition against Housing and Urban Development Corporation, where RBI was not even a party, the court took judicial notice of news report about ballooning non- performing assets in the banking sector. The counsel, who usually appears for the RBI, is reported to submit information about loans of more than 500 crore having gone bad within six weeks. One does not know really what the court would do with information about bad loans. But, if the court were to say appoint a “special investigation team ” to go into why they went bad, it would lead to a witch hunt and numerous loan officers  would have to stand trial indiscriminately. Worse, This would be an unlegislated regulatory system running parallel to the RBI, and undermining the regulator’s painstaking effort at addressing the non-performing asset problem.

With the civil aviation folks, the court is reported to have remarked that private airline ought to be forced to fly remunerative sectors  . The court was hearing an appeal from Air India challenging a decision of Himachal Pradesh High Court directing that the state owned airline should be forced to operate flights to Shimla. The court is reported to have said that if the govt did not force airlines to offer flights to unviable destination, the court would cancel all licences  and force a restatement of aviation policy. The govt has been given time to respond but the policy direction the court would take seems to have been indicated.

Directing airlines to mandatorily fly on any sector without nay statistical or empirical analysis of viability of traffic to these destinations ,  or worse, only because they are indeed unviable, without any measure of state incentive or subsidy would be a serious policy decision rather than judicial decision.

It is true that judicial activism is now an integral feature of life in the republic. However, Interventions of this sort could, despite best intentions, be counter-productive.

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