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The Karnataka High Court recently quashed a criminal case registered against the Chairman and the Managing Directors (MDs) of telecom giant, Airtel for allegedly disclosing the call details of a customer.
Airtel Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal and others had filed a petition before the High Court seeking to set aside the order of the Magistrate and quash all further criminal proceedings.
Justice R Devdas of the Karnataka High Court, while passing the order, stated that Directors of a company can be roped in only if there is sufficient incriminating evidence against them. The High Court further stated that service providers are duty bound to provide information to the Police whenever required to do so.
The complainant in the matter and an Airtel customer, N Naresh Kumar, claimed that his call details were provided to a third party (his ex-wife) without his consent.
The complainaint had filed a divorce petition against his wife and the same was pending before the Family Court at Bengaluru. During the pendency of this litigation, he had changed his mobile phone number and switched to an Airtel number.
He alleged that the wife colluded with Airtel to collect his call details between October 1 to October 9, 2012. Kumar stated that he had received certain calls from anonymous persons inquiring about his identity and whereabouts on the above mentioned dates.
Subsequently, a case was registered against the wife as well as the Chairman and Directors of Airtel for offences punishable under Sections 406, 503, 506, 507 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code and several sections under the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Following the directions of the Magistrate, the Assistant Commissioner of Police submitted a report stating that there is no truth whatsoever in the allegations made by the complainant. Despite the two reports, the Magistrate passed an order dated October 31, 2014, directing registration of the case against the petitioners and issuing of process.
Aggrieved with this order, the petitioners filed an application under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure before the High Court.
Counsel appearing for the petitioners, Senior Advocate CV Nagesh, argued that the present case was a "clear case of abuse of process" of the Court.
Nagesh brought to the attention of the Court the fact that the concerned police officer had secured call details of Kumar as there was a complaint registered with the police stating that he was missing. This was the reason as to why the jurisdictional police had to secure the call details of the complainant, Nagesh pointed out.
Moreover, he argued that if a police officer, during the course of investigation of a case, requires the call details of a person, then the service provider is required to give such information. On the contrary, if such information is not given to the Police Officer, then in all probability, the service provider can be hauled up for not providing the information and creating hurdles in the duty of a Police Officer, the counsel for the petitioners contended.
Section 92(2) of the CrPC also empowers the police officer to seek such information, counsel Nagesh added. Further, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology had issued a circular in this regard in 2014 as well, he submitted.
Advocate Nagesh further contended that the question of vicarious liability would not arise in criminal proceedings.
After hearing the arguments, the Karnataka High Court held that "no fault can be found with the Service Provider". In this regard, the Court held,
"As rightly pointed out by the learned Senior Counsel, the service providers are duty bound to give information whenever required by a Police Officer who is investigating into the matter and the learned Senior Counsel is right in his submissions that if such request is made by a Police Officer and if the local Branch Officer does not disclose the information, then he maybe liable for criminal action and may be liable for penal consequences."
Karnataka High Court
Further agreeing with the petitioner counsel, the Court pointed out that the Chairman and Managing Director are in no way involved in the day to day affairs of a Company. Court additionally cited the case of Sunil Bharati Mittal Vs. Central Bureau of Investigation to conclude that Chairman and the MD of Airtel are not liable in this case.
Apart from the above, the Court also observed,
"It is clear from the complaint that no such allegation either of criminal intent or any incriminating evidence to allege personal motive against the petitioners herein are found."
Under the circumstances, the High Court set aside all the orders of the Magistrate, and quashed all criminal proceedings against Sunil Bharti Mittal and other Airtel executives.
[Read the Judgment here]