Alarmed by the row of criminal defamation cases unleashed on political opponents of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa thro- ugh the State machinery, the Supreme Court on Thursday was confronted with the implications of its own May 2016 judgment upholding the penalisation of defamation.
Barely 10 days after the court sought a personal explanation from Ms. Jayalalithaa about the spectrum of criminal defamation cases being lodged against political opponents, the court was taken aback to find itself looking at another one on Thursday.
The earlier one concerned a criminal defamation case filed by the Dharmapuri Public Prosecutor against DMDK leader Vijaykanth. The latest one, also filed through the public prosecutor on the government’s sanction, dealt with his remarks at a public event in Tiruppur district on November 6, 2015. “Although we had upheld criminal defamation, it does not mean we will allow it to be misused as a political counter-weapon against criticism,” a Bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Rohinton F. Nariman reacted.
Despite widespread apprehension that the colonial law will have a chilling effect on political dissent and free speech, the Supreme Court, in its May 13, 2016 judgment on a batch of petitions, filed by political leaders across the spectrum, including BJP leader Dr. Subramanian Swamy, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, seeking to wipe out Sections 499 and 500 (criminal defamation) from the Indian Penal Code, had refused exhortations that penalisation of defamation would freeze democracy and political rivals would be forced to “join a chorus or sing the same song”.
In a 268-page judgment, the apex had court said it was a stretch to imagine that upholding criminal defamation in modern times would amount to imposition of silence. On Thursday, however, the Supreme Court’s reasoning in upholding criminal defamation law came under question. “Such criminal prosecution of political rivals has a chilling effect on democracy… Criticism is a basic right in democracy… Why has Tamil Nadu government filed so many criminal defamation cases against political opponents?” the Bench asked the State’s side.
It was Justice Misra’s Bench, less than a fortnight ago, which ordered Ms. Jayalalithaa to personally explain the frequency seen in filing criminal defamation cases against rivals.(The Hindu,2016)