Tolerance to fair criticism democracy’s hallmark: HC

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The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court on Monday quashed and set aside an FIR lodged against a man who was booked for allegedly misusing the Facebook page of independent MLA Ravi Rana and posting “filthy and abusive” comments against Rana’s political opponents in April this year.

A division bench of Justices Sunil B Shukre and Mahendra W Chandwani noted, “Our democracy has progressed so much where tolerance to fair criticism or dissent or critical and satirical comments have become its hallmark.”

“Social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc, today has become a powerful medium for exchange of views, expressing opinions, views, counter opinions and counter views, posting critical or satirical comments thus has become one of the important pillars on which our democracy stands. But, social media is so only till the point it is not misused by posting remarks, articles, etc, which by themselves constitute an offence or which do not fall within the prohibited zone created in terms of Article 19(2) (reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech) of the Constitution.

“In addition, one has to be careful when one expresses one’s view or makes comments that the words used are not obscene or indignified or demeaning. In other words, a balance has to be struck between the need for healthy use of social media and the need for preventing misuse of social media,” said the bench.

The bench had, on December 19, passed an order in a criminal application filed by one Suraj Thakare , district president of Rana’s Yuva Swabhiman party, against an FIR registered at Rajura police station in Chandrapur district, based on a complaint filed by Vasudeo Chaffle, Shiv Sena taluka head.

The applicant was booked for offence punishable under section 153-A of Indian Penal Code (promoting enmity between different groups) for allegedly posting abuse content by misusing MLA Ravi Rana’s Facebook page.

Additional Public Prosecutor I J Damle, appearing for the police, submitted that the allegations against the applicant indicated that they have potential to incite violence and thus, disturbing public order.

However, advocate T S Deshpande, for the applicant, submitted that no offence punishable under Section 153-A of IPC (promoting enmity between different groups) was made out against his client even if all the allegations are accepted and read as they are.

The bench found “great substance” in the applicant’s submission. “All these allegations, even if they are taken at their face value, by no stretch of imagination, could be said to be transcending into the forbidden area of communal or different groups divided on religious, racial, residential or linguistic lines and creating disharmony among them.”

It noted that none of the allegations “could be said to be made even remotely by keeping in view a particular religion or particular place of birth or residence or some specific language.” It added, “the abuses prima facie attributed to the applicant do not seem to have been made with any such criminal intention.”

“In the present case, considering the essential ingredients of an offence under Section 153-A of Indian Penal Code and the filthy language used to denounce a leader, we are of the view that this fine balance on which the social media stands is upset. It is a different matter that the offence of promoting enmity between different groups punishable under Section 153-A of IPC is not made out in this case. But, that does not give licence to the applicant to revile the head of the state government; to be bawdy about the head,” observed the HC.

The bench allowed the plea and quashed and set aside the FIR against the applicant, and asked the parties to exercise restraint in future.

It noted, “A crime not disclosed has been registered against the applicant on the one hand and a new ebb in showing dissent through lewd comments has been attained by the applicant on the other. We hope, in future, some restraint will be shown by both sides.”



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