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The Indian Constitution does not expressly guarantee the freedom of press or media in so many words. However, these freedoms are extended to all citizens, and by extension, to the press, in the form of the Fundamental Right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19. In Express Newspapers Ltd. V. Union of India, Justice PN Bhagwati opined that, “the liberty of the press is an essential part of the right to freedom of speech and expression and consists of having no restraints.”
Therefore, it can be rightly said that under the Indian law, the media enjoys no special privilege. As a rule, the media has to act in subordination to the larger interests of the community. As Justice Hidayatullah noted in Ranjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra, that “the Press is free to express opinions to change the political and social conditions or for the advancement of human knowledge.”
The Indian criminal justice system expects the media to observe certain norms of behaviour. Simply put, any attempt to breach the sanctity or reputation or existence of State organs, community or individuals shall be punishable under law. For example, Section 124A of Indian Penal Code (hereinafter referred to as “IPC”) relates to sedition; Section 153A of IPC relates to promotion or attempts to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India and Section 499 of IPC pertaining to defamation. These are the provisions of law commonly invoked, when the media fails to observe the aforesaid norms
Hence, it is often seen that media persons and journalists face criminal actions brought by an offended individual or a group of individuals. The present case pertaining to Amish Devgan is based on similar lines. Amish Devgan, the Managing Editor at News18 India, is facing the brunt of a similar set of offended group. He was made the subject of multiple FIRs after he used derogatory terms to refer to Sufi Saint Moinuddin Chisti during his news programme. Presently, the Supreme Court has issued an interim order extending the protection given to Devgan against any coercive action for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.
Facts of the Issue
On June 15, 2020, Primetime news anchor of News18 India, Amish Devgan, on his news debate show called ‘Aar Paar’, used derogatory words to refer to Sufi Saint Chisti. During a heated debate on a PIL regarding the Place of Worship (Special Provision) Act, Devgan referred to the revered Sufi Saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisthi, also known as Khwaja Ghreeb Nawaz, as “aakranta (attacker) Chishti” and “lootere (looter) Chishti”. This incited waves of fury across the nation. Subsequently, multiple police complaints and FIRs were filed against Devgan in five states. Following this, Devgan made an apology on his show, claiming that he made an unintentional mistake. He also tweeted along similar lines.
It is important to note that the police complaints filed against the anchor invoked Sections 295A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 153A (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 505 (Statements conducing to public mischief) and 34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of IPC.
Devgan has now moved to the Apex Court to enforce a stay on these cases and seeks the quashing of the aforesaid FIRs lodged against him. According to his petition, he had “no intention” of hurting any religious statements and therefore, the FIRs should be quashed as it is a “small issue”. Currently, he has been granted protection against any coercive action.
Legal Provisions Involved
At the core of this case is Section 295A of IPC, which restrains anyone from committing any act which will infuriate the religious feelings of any class. While India has no laws related to blasphemy, the closest variant of it in our country, is Section 295A.
This section deals with ‘deliberate and malicious acts’, which have the intention to enrage the religious sentiments of a class, by insulting the religion’s or its beliefs. Actions for the purpose of attracting this provision, can be spoken, written, by signs or by any visible representation, insulting or attempting to insult a religion or religious beliefs.
Section 295A of IPC
The term ‘malicious and deliberate acts’ needs to be interpreted carefully, as every act which may offend a religious group or class, cannot be said to have been done with the intent to hurt the sentiments of said group.
If we focus on the debate during which this incident occurred, it has been noted that there was no prior reference made to Khilji in the entirety of the debate. It is also pertinent to note here, that just before Devgan made those derogatory remarks, a panellist had referred to Chishti as an exemplar of the peaceful spears of Islam in the subcontinent, therefore it is very curious and odd to find out that he confused Khilji for Chishti and why.
It is interesting to note that Devgan has made controversial anti-Muslim remarks and has been accused of biased reporting against Muslims before. In May, Devgan played a video of an altercation between locals during his show and claimed that, “a huge crowd has assembled after namaz from the mosque, wherein the police were manhandled.” However, this was contrary to the facts and a police case was filed against Devgan. He apologised after a few days for making such a mistake.
Previously, in April during another one of his shows, Devgan asked a Muslim panellist to “shut up and sit down” when he told Devgan not to add a Hindu-Muslim angle to the issue. This panellist was then muted.
One of the presiding judges in the present case, Justice AM Khanwilkar as a part of a three-judge bench has made a judgment on the misuse of Section 295A in Mahendra Singh Dhoni v. Yerraguntla Shyamsundar. Herein, the Supreme Court restricted the applicability of this section and excluded casual observations that were not driven by malicious intent. In order to invite penalty, “emphasis shall be made on the calculated tendency of the said aggravated form of insult and also to disrupt the public order.” The Court also remarked that, “insults made towards a religion carelessly or without any deliberate or malicious intention to outrage the religious feelings of that class do not fall under this provision.”
Section 295A is a controversial provision due to its vagueness and susceptibility to misuse. It can have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression and prima facie seems violative of Article 19(1)(a).
In recent times, there have been several debates regarding the decriminalisation of Section 295A, for various viable reasons. However, we need to balance both sides of this debate and narrow down the purview of this section to make sure it does not become an obstacle to the freedom of expression and of media in our country.
Author: Nikita Prakash from Symbiosis Law School, Pune.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India