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The Madras High Court on Tuesday dismissed a batch of petitions filed by social activist Thirumurugan Gandhi seeking the quashing of several FIRs accusing him of hate speech.
While cautioning that free speech also has its legal limits, Justice N Anand Venkatesh held,
“A careful reading of the allegations made in the complaint and which has been extracted supra, shows that the petitioner has a clear tendency to get into a vitriolic diatribe whenever he picks up the microphone.”
Thirumurugan Gandhi has been accused of offences under Sections 124 (Sedition), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 504 (insult with intent to breach peace), 505 (insulting to incite offences) and 353 (assault preventing public servant from discharging duty) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Appearing for the state, Public Prosecutor A Natarajan informed the Court that there were nearly 20 cases pending against Gandhi at the stage of trial and 6 cases at the stage of investigation, apart from the present cases. He argued that speeches by Thirumurugan Gandhi incited negativity amongst the public towards government welfare schemes and intended to create enmity between different communities. He contended that Gandhi’s speeches were likely to trigger law and order problems.
Representing Thirumurugan Gandhi, Senior Advocate NR Elango argued that the criminal cases filed against Gandhi were false cases foisted only to intimidate him. The same was part of a witch hunt meant to throttle Gandhi from speaking on public welfare issues, argued Elango.
However, the Court found merit in the state’s submissions. It concluded that the speeches made by Gandhi, prima facie, appeared to have objectionable content.
“The speeches made by the petitioner and offending portions extracted herein above, is pregnant with hate spewed against a particular community which is attacked in a vituperative, opprobrious and slanderous manner. The petitioner is repeatedly attempting to portray as if Tamil Nadu does not belong to India and that every organ is attempting to destroy this State.”
The Court also took critical note of speeches said to have been made by Gandhi against the judiciary.
“He has also used the choicest of words against the High Court and Hon’ble Supreme Court. The claim made by the petitioner is that he is running an organisation to protect the welfare and interest of this State. The speeches made by the petitioner are no where near these avowed objects.”
The High Court, therefore, dismissed Gandhi’s plea, finding that there are absolutely no grounds to interfere with the investigation conducted by the police at this stage. Before parting with the plea, the Court also observed,
“It is also important for the respondent Police to investigate thoroughly and see if there is a larger net and whether the petitioner is only the face of it.“
Responsibility attached to Free Speech must not be forgotten
In passing the order, the Court also made pertinent observations concerning the constitutional limits of free speech. Justice Venkatesh observed,
“It is true that free speech is the foundation of a democratic Society. A free exchange of ideas, dissemination of information, without restraints, dissemination of knowledge, airing of different view points, debating and forming one’s own views and expressing them, are the basic ideas of a free Society.
This freedom alone makes it possible for people to formulate their own views and opinions on a proper basis and to exercise their social, economic and political rights in a free society in an informed manner.”
In this backdrop, the Court cautioned that public speakers must also be circumspect to ensure that their speech is within constitutional restrictions.
“Any leader or a speaker who takes to public platform or expresses through a social media, must bear it in mind that the Constitution of India does not permit hate speech in the name of freedom of speech and expression. Hate speeches create discord amongst the various ethnic and religious communities.
Any speech which disrespects another citizen on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community, is forbidden and becomes punishable under Indian Penal Code and various other laws.
The responsibility attached to free speech should not be forgotten.”
However, in this case, the judge opined that the speeches made by Gandhi had “shades of fissiparous and separatist tendencies, which will seriously affect the unity of the nation and will have an impact on the growth and development of this State.” Reiterating the obligation cast when making public speeches, the Court observed,
“The petitioner must understand that these hate speeches will in no way help or protect the welfare and interest of this State. Spewing venom against a particular community is not going to help the down trodden come up in the Society and become a part of the main stream. On the other hand, it will only sow the seeds of hatred among communities. People want to progress and come up in life and certainly the speeches made by the petitioner will not in any way contribute towards the same.”