Plea for SC guidelines on speech freedom

New Delhi, Jan. 31: The Supreme Court will tomorrow hear social scientist Ashis Nandy's plea for quashing the FIRs registered against him across the country for his alleged defamatory comments on Dalits and tribals at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival.

Nandy, a respected sociologist, has also urged the court to lay down guidelines to prevent frequent violations of the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression and abuse of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

In his petition, he said recurring instances of "condemnation of freedom of speech and expression as hate speech" needed guidelines to ensure that such freedom wasn't "hindered or muzzled" by "abuse" of political position or "misuse" of administrative power.

"Let the matter be listed as a fresh matter," the bench of Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justices Anil Dave and Vikramjit Sen said after senior counsel Aman Lekhi sought an early hearing on the ground that Nandy "apprehended immediate arrest".

When Lekhi pleaded for a hearing today, the bench said: "How can we hear it today just like that? But we will hear it tomorrow."

The court then listed the matter for Friday.

Nandy has been facing a barrage of criticism for his remark that OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were the most corrupt, but put their alleged corruption down to their acute deprivation.

He later apologised but clarified there was no intention to hurt any community.

The comment, however, triggered a flurry of complaints at police stations in Jaipur, Raipur and Nashik. At least one of the FIRs was lodged under the SC/ST Act and an Indian Penal Code section dealing with criminal intimidation.

If found guilty, the punishment can range from six months to seven years in jail, or a fine or both.

In his plea, Nandy sought guidelines on what was "proscribed" to ensure that the freedom to communicate, the "soul" of the right to freedom of expression, was not muzzled.

"The misuse of Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act, 1989, requires various guidelines to be framed so that the same does not fall foul of Article 19(2) of the Constitution," his petition said.

Article 19(2) guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression with reasonable restrictions.

Nandy, whose petition clarified there was no "mala fide intent" to "insult" or "humiliate" any SC/ST member, said he was surprised that an FIR had been lodged against him in Jaipur's Ashok Nagar police station under IPC Section 506 (criminal intimidation) and Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act, 1989. Offences under both sections are non-bailable.

"If the provisions of Section 3(1)(x) of the SC/ST Act, 1989, and Section 506 are attracted… then the same shall fall foul of Article 19(2) of the Constitution which ceases to be a reasonable restriction of freedom of speech and expression as envisaged under Article 19(1) of the Constitution," he said.

He said the offence under Section 3(1)(x) of SC/ST Act, 1989 was non-bailable and even the protection of anticipatory bail was denied under Section 18 of the SC/ST Act.

The petition said the registration of the FIR itself was an abuse of law as the petitioner was being denied his fundamental rights under Article 14 (right to equality), 19 (freedom of speech) and 21 (liberty) because of the clamour for immediate arrest from political personalities, including BSP chief Mayawati, and P.L. Punia, chairman of the SC and ST Commission.

Nandy said his physical safety was at stake because of the surcharged atmosphere and the statements by the politicians. His petition urged the apex court to decide on what constituted an offence under Section 3(1)(x) of SC/ST Act, 1989, and the circumstances under which police could investigate and initiate penal action under the act.

The petition also sought a directive for not taking "coercive action" of any nature in any proceedings without the court's permission in relation to his comments and statements at literature festival.

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