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Can a Chief Minister use her influence to instigate the government to issue sanction to initiate criminal defamation proceedings against a political opponent?
This is a question the Supreme Court wants Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to personally respond within the next four weeks.
Plea by Vijayakanth
The query came in a hearing before a Bench of Justices Dipak Misra and C. Nagappan on a plea by DMDK chief Vijayakanth to stay proceedings on a criminal defamation complaint filed against him by the Dharmapuri Public Prosecutor on receiving sanction from the Jayalalithaa government.
He is accused of making disparaging remarks about the Chief Minister and the government during his speech at a public welfare meeting in October 2015 at Dharmapuri.
“The Public Prosecutor is not a postman and his office is not a post office,” Justice Misra orally observed. He was referring to submissions made by DMDK counsel G.S. Mani on the alleged non-application of mind by the prosecutor’s office.
Besides Ms. Jayalalithaa, the Bench issued notice to the prosecutor concerned.
A political rival in a democracy, like any other common man, has the right to criticise the government of the day, Justice Misra observed.
Incidentally, Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, appearing for the Centre in the case, submitted that the public prosecutor’s office, which is the sanctioning authority for criminal defamation proceedings, has a “significant and sacred role” to play.
Mr. Kumar said a complaint of criminal defamation “cannot be filed in a routine manner to harass a citizen.”
In a detailed order, the Bench reproduced the submissions made by Mr. Mani that though the Supreme Court, in a recent judgment, had upheld the constitutional validity of criminal defamation under Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, it had objected to the penal provision being used as a tool against “the concept of fair criticism, discernment and dissection of activities of the State government and disapproval of views taken in the matters of administration and policy decisions.”
“A sustained democracy is predicated fundamentally on the idea of criticism, dissent, and tolerance, for the will, desire, aspirations and sometimes the desperation of the people on many an occasion are expressed through such criticism. Mr. Mani would submit that the citizenry right to criticize cannot be atrophied by constant launching of criminal prosecution for defamation on each and every issue to silence the critics,” Justice Misra, who authored the order for the Bench, wrote.
The court extended its stay of the criminal proceedings against Mr. Vijayakanth and scheduled the case for hearing on August 28.