Any Attempt To Vilify A Religious Community Must Be Viewed With Grave Disfavour: SC In Sudarshan TV Case

“What has been happening does not do credit to our democratic system. India is a melting pot of civilizations, cultures and values, etc. Any attempt to vilify a community must be viewed with great disfavour by this court, which is the custodian of constitutional right. Its duty to enforce constitutional value demands nothing less. Every single person who applies to take the UPSC exam goes through the same selection process and the insinuation that one community was trying to infiltrate civil services  does great disservice to the nation.”

Who else can say such invaluable, intellectual and priceless words other than the eminent, distinguished and a senior Judge of the Supreme Court – Justice Dr DY Chandrachud whose every judgment is worth studying hundred times. I have just no hesitation to say that if the Ayodhya verdict has acquired a semblance of approval from people across religious lines, it was only because of Justice Dr DY Chandrachud who many reported in media was the one who really authored this most historic judgment with consummate ease which ended the more than 500 year old vexed dispute between Hindus and Muslims most peacefully! He is known to express his views always in the most outspoken, elegant and effective manner with cogent arguments being visible clearly in his learned judgments!                               On a personal note, I very strongly feel that India cannot be ever complete without Muslims. Just like Hindus, Muslims too form an integral part of India which cannot be ever denied! If Hindus and Muslims had stayed united firmly in 1947, leave alone the ‘Britishers’ even “God” could not have ensured the partition of India and we would have by now been the most powerful country in the world!

This “England” which was ruling us never wanted India to stay united and so it right from the start had sowed the seeds of hatred, distrust, division, discord and we have to blame ourselves that is “the people” and “the leaders” of those times for getting biased, trapped in their “most dirty game” and agreeing to the ‘horrible’ partition of India on the most “shameless, senseless and stupid” ground of religion due to which Pakistan came into existence even though Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Maulana Hasrat Mohani and many other Muslim leaders were deadly against partition of India on the ground of religion! It cannot be denied or disputed that this partition made a mockery of our freedom struggle as no true Indian ever wanted the partition of India on the basis of religion but “dirty politics” masterminded by “Britishers” with their “Indian agents” in India stole the show and India was thus partitioned most wrongly!

Needless to say, there has to be zero tolerance for hatred of any kind. This is exactly what the three Judge Bench of the Supreme Court comprising of Justice Dr DY Chandrachud, Justice Indu Malhotra and Justice KM Joseph have sought to convey by this latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment titled Firoz Iqbal Khan vs Union of India & Ors in Writ Petition(s) (Civil) No.(s). 956/2020 delivered on September 15, 2020 even though the case is yet to finally conclude. The petition was filed by advocate Firoz Iqbal Khan who submitted that the programme on Sudarshan TV contained statements which were derogatory about the entry of Muslims into the civil services. Senior advocate Anoop Chaudhari for petitioner Firoz Iqbal Khan said that, “The show was blatantly communal and had become a focal point of hate speech.” The Apex Court by this leading judgment has restrained Sudarshan News from broadcasting remaining episodes of a show that has claimed to “expose” the “infiltration of Muslims” in the civil services. Very rightly so!

To start with, the ball is set rolling by first and foremost pointing in this notable judgment that, “Applications for interventions are allowed. On 28th August 2020, the writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution was moved for urgent directions since the telecast of a programme titled “Bindas Bol” was to take place at 8 pm on Sudarshan news, the news channel of the fifth respondent. The petitioner relied on the transcript of a promotional clip of forty-nine seconds. The contention was that the clip contains statements which are derogatory of the entry of Muslims in the civil service. The Court declined to issue a pre-broadcast interlocutory injunction, furnishing the following reasons in paragraph 8 of the order:-

“8. At this stage, we have desisted from imposing a pre-broadcast interlocutory injunction on the basis of an unverified transcript of a forty nine second clip. The Court has to be circumspect in imposing a prior restraint on publication or the airing of views. We note that under statutory provisions, competent authorities are vested with powers to ensure compliance with law, including provisions of the criminal law intended to ensure social harmony and the peaceful coexistence of all communities.”

Several interlocutory applications have been moved before this Court including I.A. Nos. 91132, 91134, 91167, 91171, 91135, 91136 and 90940 of 2020.”

Be it noted, the Apex Court points out rightly that, “Since the order of this Court dated 28 August 2020, certain developments have taken place. On the same day as the previous order of this Court, a Single Judge of the Delhi High Court restrained the fifth respondent from broadcasting the proposed programme and directed the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to consider whether there was a violation of the Programme Code under the provisions of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. A communication was addressed on 09 September 2020 by the Union Government to the fifth respondent to ensure that the broadcast of the programme is consistent with the provisions of the Programme Code. Since then, episodes of the programme based on the same theme have been broadcast on 11, 12, 13 and 14 September 2020. The remaining episodes comprising of a total of ten episodes are to be broadcast between 15 to 20 September 2020.”

To put things in perspective, the Bench then points out the petitioner’s version that, “On behalf of the petitioners, it has been submitted that the content of the episodes which have been telecast constitutes hate speech directed against the Muslim community. It has been submitted that the telecasts vilify the community by portraying it to be involved in act of terror or, as it is labelled, “jehad” in infiltrating the civil services of the nation. Hence, it has been submitted that the restraint which was observed by this Court in declining to issue an order of injunction on 28 August 2020 would warrant a change. It has been submitted that the circumstances which weighed this Court in declining to order a pre-broadcast injunction have substantially been altered. For one thing, it has been emphasized that in the course of the telecast, palpably false statements have been made in connection with the Muslim community, including among them the statements that:

(i)                         While the upper age limit for Hindus in the civil services examination is 32 years, the age limit for Muslims is 35 years; and

(ii)                      While six attempts are made available for Hindus to appear for the civil services examination, Muslims are entitled to nine attempts.

Screenshots of the programme which have been aired between 11 and 14 September, 2020 have been placed on record together with transcripts. It has been submitted that a carefully orchestrated attempt has been made to target the Muslim Community as being involved in a conspiracy to infiltrate the civil services.”

Most significantly, the Bench then very rightly underscores that, “The Court is presently seized with the hearing of the writ petition which will continue on the next available date of listing which is 17 September 2020. In the meantime, the issue is whether a pre-broadcast injunction should be issued in respect of the remaining episodes of the programme. At this stage, prima facie, it does appear to the Court that the intent, object and purpose of the episodes which have been telecast is to vilify the Muslim community. An insidious attempt has been made to insinuate that the community is involved in a conspiracy to infiltrate the civil services. Several statements in the episodes, which have been drawn to the attention of the Court are not just palpably erroneous but have been made in wanton disregard of the truth. There is no relaxation either in the age limit or in the number of attempts available to the Muslim community in the civil services. The drift, tenor and content of the episodes is to bring the community into public hatred and disrepute. The Court is duty bound to ensure compliance with the salutary principles of the Programme Code. The Programme Code has been formulated under Rule 6 of the Cable and Television Networks (Regulation) Rules and has statutory force and effect. Rule 6(1)(c), inter alia, stipulates that no programme should be carried which “contains attack on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promotes communal attitudes”. Under Rule 6(1)(d), the Programme Code should not, inter alia, contain anything which is defamatory, false or reflective of “half-truths and suggestive of innuendos”. A breach of the Programme Code is subject to sanctions under Sections 19 and 20 of the Cable and Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. The edifice of a democratic society committed to the rule of law under a regime of constitutional rights, values and duties is founded on the co-existence of communities. India is a melting pot of civilizations, cultures and values, etc. Any attempt to vilify a community must be viewed with great disfavour by this court, which is the custodian of constitutional right. Its duty to enforce constitutional value demands nothing less.”

Finally, the Bench then holds that, “Conscious, therefore, as we are of the previous order dated 28 August 2020 declining to issue a pre-broadcast injunction, we are of the view that there has been a change of circumstances, at least, prima facie, on the basis of the record which has emerged before this Court. On 28 August 2020, the Court was truly in the realm of a pre-broadcast injunction when even the first programme was to be aired. Since then, episodes have been aired between 11 and 14 September 2020 which indicate the content, tenor and object of the telecast in question. The remaining episodes admittedly will be in the same vein. On the basis of what has been aired, we are of the view that it will be necessary to interdict any further telecast. Consequently, we direct that pending further orders of this Court, the fifth respondent shall stand injuncted from making any further telecast in continuation of or similar to the episodes which were telecast on 11, 12, 13 and 14 September, 2020 either under the same or any other title or caption. List on 17 September 2020.”

Truth be told, Justice Dr DY Chandrachud very rightly points out that, “This is not a freedom of speech issue. When you say students of Jamia are part of a conspiracy to infiltrate civil services, that is not permissible. You cannot target one community and brand them in a particular manner. As the Supreme Court of the nation, we cannot allow you to say that Muslims are infiltrating the civil services. You cannot say that the journalist has absolute freedom in doing this.” Advocate Shadan Farasat who appeared for the petitioner very rightly said that the show had vilified the image of Muslims in civil services. He rightly asked that, “How does one respond to a statement that Muslims should not be in civil services?” The Apex Court too was particularly miffed at this when it said that, “Look at this programme how rabid is this programme that one community is entering into civil services. Can such programmes be allowed in a free society? Your client is doing a disservice to the nation and is not accepting India as a melting pot of diverse culture. Your client needs to exercise his freedom with caution. We are not suggesting some kind of censorship on media but there should be some kind of self-regulation in media.”

No doubt, the Apex Court certainly has a valid point when it restrained Sudarshan TV from telecasting two episodes of “Bindas Bol” programme which are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday saying it prima facie appears to vilify the Muslim community. This no true Indian can ever accept under any circumstances just like no true Indian can ever justify what the fugitive Dr Zakir Naik preached and whose Peace TV channel is banned in India as he justified violent terrorism against non Muslims and who is now based in Malaysia! Similarly Solicitor General Tushar Mehta too rightly pointed out that, “Some channels were raising the bogey of “Hindu Terror” some time ago.”

To incite hatred or contempt against any religion cannot be ever justified under any circumstances! Justice KM Joseph also made it clear that, “Press freedom is not absolute and is in no way greater than that of the citizens.” No denying it!

Sanjeev Sirohi

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