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The Supreme Court today issued notice in a petition filed by activist Tehseen Poonawalla against the judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court imposing costs of Rs 10 lakhs on him and music composer Vishal Dadlani for tweets mocking Jain monk Tarun Sagar. The Bench of Justices Rohinton Nariman and Surya Kant issued notice in the plea and stayed the order of costs.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court, while admitting that there was no criminal offence made out, had imposed costs of Rs 10 lakh on Poonawalla and Dadlani for their 2016 tweets.
The special leave petition before the Supreme Court was filed by Poonawalla against this order. He was represented by Senior Counsel Menaka Guruswamy.
On August 26, 2016, Jain monk, Tarun Sagar had been invited to make a speech in the Haryana legislative assembly in an event marking its golden jubilee celebrations. Dadlani took to Twitter the following day to criticise the monk’s appearance at the assembly and his speech while registering his objection to religion in governance. Poonwalla also put out similar critical tweets the same day. Further, he also queried why women are shamed when they are semi-nude, whereas monks are termed holy when they “walk nude”.
Following public outcry by a number of netizens, Dadlani eventually apologized for his tweets. To this end, he issued a public statement of apology and also met the Jain monk personally to seek his forgiveness. Through media interviews, Sagar also expressed that he had forgiven both Dadlani and Poonwalla for their tweets, remarking that both persons had made the comments ignorant of the Jain lifestyle and ways.
Nevertheless, a non-Jain third party filed an FIR against both Dadlani and Poonwalla accusing them of offences under Sections 295A (outraging religious feelings), 153A (inciting enmity between different religious, ethnic etc. groups) or 509 (outraging the modesty of a woman) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Poonwalla, on his part, submitted that he did not regret making the tweets. He contended that by doing so, he had not committed any criminal offence.
In a subsequent case filed before the High Court to quash the FIR, both Poonwalla and Dadlani argued that the ingredients of the IPC sections charges against them were not made out. Inter alia, it was pointed out that there was no mens rea to commit the said offences.
Interestingly, the High Court agreed with the petitioners that they were not guilty of any of the IPC offences charged. All the same, the Court decided to impose Rs 10 lakhs as deterrent costs on both Dadlani and Poonwalla, apparently invoking its powers under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), 1973, while observing,
“… the question now arises that in view of above, the petitions be simply allowed or in exercise of power under Section 482 Cr.P.C., justice can also be done to the followers of Jain religion. If the contribution made by the petitioners towards poor people is compared to the contribution made by Jain Muni Tarun Sagar, it is apparent that the petitioners have played a mischief to gain publicity without having much to their credit.
In recent years, the country has witnessed large scale violent protest on incitement made by using social media platform, thereby, causing extensive damage to public property.
However, the preachings of Jain Muni Tarun Sagar about non-violence, sacrifices and forgiveness, has avoided repetition of such like protest.”
Therefore, the final order of the High Court had read,
“Accordingly, the present petitions are allowed; the FIR No.0310 dated 28.08.2016 registered under Sections 295-A, 153-A and 509 IPC (Section 66E of the I.T. Act, added later on) at Police station Ambala Cantt. Haryana, and all other proceedings arising therefrom are ordered to be quashed subject to payment of costs on or before 01.09.2019, failing which these petitions will be deemed to be dismissed.“