Preventing citizen from voicing opinion against law violates right to free speech: Sonia, Rahul tell HC

New Delhi, 30 Aug: Preventing a citizen from expressing a bonfide opinion against any bill or law passed by Parliament is violative of the right to free speech and principles of democracy, Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have contended before the Delhi High Court while opposing a plea for a hate speech FIR against them in the February 2020 riots here.
The Gandhis, in two separate affidavits, submitted no case was made out for the court to issue direction for registering an FIR against them and there was no requirement to order constitution of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the matter. No interference and the case of issuance of direction to register an FIR against Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi is not made out and no interference is called for by this court to pass any order.
The high court, while hearing a batch of petitions related to the 2020 riots in north-east Delhi, had on July 13 allowed several amendment applications wanting to implead political leaders, including Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, as parties to proceedings seeking FIR and investigation against them for allegedly delivering hate speeches leading to the communal conflagration.
On Monday, a bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Amit Sharma listed the matter for further hearing on September 27.
In their affidavits filed in response to the petitions seeking FIR, Gandhis said to prevent a citizen from forming, holding, expressing a bonafide opinion in public interest on a bill passed by Parliament is not a reasonable restriction and violates the basic principles on which our democracy is founded.
“To prevent a citizen from expressing a bonafide opinion against any bill or law passed by the government and putting it in the public domain to inform, generate a debate, build public opinion for reforms/ change is violative of our right to free speech,” the affidavits, filed through advocate Tarannum Cheema, said.
It said, “Moreover, the respondent (Sonia Gandhi) as major leader of the opposition is bound by the fundamental duty towards the citizens of the country, to call out and criticise the bills introduced by the ruling government which are detrimental to the rights of the citizens.” Hate speeches by political leaders during anti-CAA protests were alleged to have fuelled the riots.
The affidavits claimed the array of respondents showed the selective manner in which they have been picked and gives away the larger conspiracy behind the exercise and the acts have fallen on independent, non-conformist sections and leaders of the opposition parties.
“Meanwhile, a series of speeches made by the members of the ruling party, falling squarely within the ambit of the sections under which the present writ is seeking action against the respondents, have been conveniently left out by the petitioner, revealing the coloured nature of the exercise,” they said.
The two leaders also opposed the PIL on the ground of maintainability and called it a “publicity interest litigation”.
They said the alleged portion of the speech relied upon by the petitioner organisation ‘Lawyers Voice’ miserably failed to even prima facie satisfy the essential ingredients of the offences, including Section 153A of IPC, alleged against the two respondents.
The section deals with promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion, race etc.
“Even according to the narrative of the present writ, which itself willfully twist and manipulate the actual facts of the situation, no allegations under Section 153B (Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) of the IPC are maintainable against the respondent.
“Not only has the respondent made no reference to any particular group of persons on the basis of their caste, community, religion, region, race or language, the provisions of Section 153B are very specific and are in no way connected with the facts and circumstances of the instant case,” the two leaders asserted in similar affidavits.
Earlier this year, the court had issued notices to several politicians, including Anurag Thakur (BJP), Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (Congress), Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, and others, on two impleadment applications in the matter.
One impleadment application was filed by petitioner Shaikh Mujtaba Farooq who sought FIRs over hate speeches allegedly made by BJP leaders Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra, Parvesh Verma, and Abhay Verma.
The other application was by petitioner ‘Lawyers Voice’ which sought registration of hate speech FIRs against Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as well as Deputy CM Manish Sisodia, Aam Aadmi Party MLA Amanatullah Khan, AIMIM leader Akbaruddin Owaisi, former AIMIM MLA Warris Pathan, Mehmood Pracha, Harsh Mander, Mufti Mohammad Ismail, Swara Bhasker, Umar Khalid, BG Kolse Patil, a former Bombay High Court Judge, and others.
The Lawyers Voice has stated in the application that public discourse cannot become a tool to promote speech that is inimical to public order and, if an FIR is not registered, the wrongdoers will be encouraged.
Apart from seeking action against those who allegedly made the hate speeches in the backdrop of the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, some other petitions have sought setting up of an SIT, FIRs against police officers allegedly involved in the violence, and disclosure about those arrested and detained.
In its response to these prayers, the police had earlier said the investigation into the riots has not revealed any evidence till now that political leaders instigated or participated in the violence. (PTI)