On 16th April 2020, a vigilant but brutal mob lynched two ascetics and their driver in Palgarh district of Maharashtra. The villagers allegedly suspected the three to be child-kidnappers and organ harvesters.
They were driving to a funeral in Surat when a group of villagers gathered around them. The villagers attacked them with stones, logs, and axes. Over the past few days, local villagers had formed vigilante groups. They heard rumours that organ-harvesting gangs, child-lifters, and thieves were operating in their areas at night. The rumours had also led to cases of assault on a doctor and a police team in nearby areas.
A team of police officers reached the spot, as per the official account. The police officers tried to pacify the mob to the best of their capabilities. However, the mob threatened and attacked the team too. Interestingly, videos that had emerged from the lynching showed police standing even as the crowd attacked the three. In another clip, a lone policeman was seen pushing the victim away, towards the mad crowd.
Arnab’s Report of the Incident
Republic TV’s news anchor Arnab Goswami began his report by berating everyone for being silent on the murder of Hindus. It is pertinent to note that he himself was three days late on telecasting the story on primetime. His debate raised questions on the safety of Hindus in India. In a country where 80% of the population belongs to the Sanatan Dharam. He questioned whether being a Hindu was a crime in India. He further inquired if there would have been a similar reaction if it were a Muslim instead.
Arnab elaborated on his understanding of the situation. He accused Sonia Gandhi of getting the Sadhus lynched. Further, he alleged that she sent reports to Italy about how she has managed to bump off Hindus in states where she governs. He ended his side of narration by claiming that Hindus aren’t weak but are as strong as tolerant they have been so far.
Freedom of Speech in India & the Exceptions
Article 19(1)(a) of part three of the Indian Constitution grants Indian citizens the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. This right also empowers the press and media of the country. However, Article 19(2) enables the legislature to impose reasonable restrictions on the right in the interests of or in relation to:
- Sovereignty and integrity of India;
- Security of the State;
- Friendly relations with foreign states;
- Public order;
- Decency and morality;
- Contempt of court;
- Defamation; and
- Incitement to an offence.
An Analysis of Arnab’s speech
Given the facts of the incident, one would expect somber TV debates on the devastating role of social media rumours in fuelling mob violence. These debates should discuss the inefficiency of the police in controlling the mob. They should demand swift justice in such cases to set an example. But Arnab’s debate took a different tangent and made the incident of communal nature. However, there was no evidence to prove that the identity of men in saffron was a trigger in the crime. He rather used the incident to bite off Lutyen’s Lobby, Liberals and Opposition. His journalism further degraded when he falsely accused Sonia Gandhi in a foul language of the abhorrent murder.
He should technically not be able to hide his words under the garb of free speech and media independence. Arnab’s speech is dangerous as it increases the risk that his audience will condone or participate in violence against members of other groups. Relevantly, the message he propagated has a strong and influential social and historical context. His allegations on Sonia Gandhi can not only attract defamation charges from her but also affect India’s relations with Italy.
Thus, his news is capable of inciting violence and defaming another individual. It may also affect friendly foreign relations. This news may attract the attention of Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
Attack on Arnab
Some goons attacked Arnab Goswami while he was driving back home with his family. This happened after the broadcast of his primetime show that accused Sonia Gandhi of the gross Palgarh incident. In this show, he also questioned the well-being and security of Hindus in India. In a video, Arnab blamed Congress youth workers for the attack. However, the party denied any connections. The police have arrested two people so far and the inquiry is still in progress.
However, the attack should be condemned for all reasons as violence is illegal and never carries any justification. It is wrong whether it’s personal or an attack on someone’s bad journalism. Violence is no way to put forward what one believes in and only the judiciary is the ultimate judge.
FIRs against Arnab
Several complaints were filed against Arnab Goswami in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. The allegations include inciting communal hatred and defaming Congress leader Sonia Gandhi. The FIRs mentioned offences under Sections 153A, 153B, 295A, 500, 504, 505, etc of the Indian Penal Code. Arnab moved to Supreme Court to seek a stay on the FIRs registered against him.
Arnab’s counsel pleaded that the complaints were lodged at the instance of the Indian National Congress to coerce, harass, and intimidate the petitioner to muzzle the media. He prayed to provide protection to Arnab, especially after a murderous attack on him on April 23.
The opposition contended that Arnab was not a privileged person that, no investigation can be carried out against him. The counsel argued that the petition was based on fake freedom of speech. It was argued that Arnab’s program was highly provocative, communalized, and tarnished Sonia Gandhi’s image.
Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court granted three weeks of protection from arrest to Arnab Goswami. The Court permitted him to move an anticipatory bail application before the Trial Court or High Court. The Court protected him from any coercive steps in relation to the FIRs arising out of the telecast that took place after the Palgarh incident. The Bench clubbed and stayed all FIRs except the one registered at Nagpur until further orders. It also held that any other FIRs filed thereafter, (relating to or arising out of the present cause of action) shall remain stayed until further notice.
An Advocate wrote to the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court highlighting his grievance against working of the Court’s registry. He alleged discrimination in terms of listing and basis of “urgency” of cases. This happened after Arnab’s case was given sudden preference over many significant but pending issues as if Arnab was first among equals. The Supreme Court’s decision also attracted disappointment as it did not issue any warning to Arnab. The Court did not hold him accountable.
Clubbing of FIRs
In VK Sharma vs. Union of India, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court rejected the request to consolidate all pending cases across the country into one. However, the Court granted permission under Article 32 of the Constitution to approach respective High Courts to bring in all pending cases within its territorial jurisdiction to one court.
However, in the State of Punjab & Anr. vs. Rajesh Sayal, a three-judge bench of Supreme Court quashed the judgment of VK Sharma. The bench observed that the said order is not in accordance with the law and should not be treated as a precedent. Therefore, if at all the Supreme Court wishes to legitimize clubbing of FIRs, the issue has to be referred to a larger bench. Interestingly, the Supreme Court has consolidated and clubbed FIRs to be tried at one single under provisions of CrPC. Nevertheless, it is an extremely sensitive issue where civil liberties of citizens collide with the powers of the State as an interrogator.
Information and Broadcasting Ministry: Actions & Inactions
The ministry time and again issues advisories for private satellite TV channels to broadcast content strictly in adherence to the Programme and Advertising Codes. These Codes are prescribed in the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. It advises being particularly cautious with regard to any content which is likely to encourage or incite violence. The Code also includes any content that contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promotes anti-national attitudes. It forbids telecast of anything affecting the integrity of the nation. The Code advises being careful of content that contains an attack on religion, communities, visuals, words contemptuous of religious groups, or which promote communal attitudes.
Religious tensions in India have worsened off over time. Arnab’s speech clearly sow seeds of hatred and distrust in its audience, especially among the devoted viewers of Republic TV. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has issued several hours ban previously on NDTV and two Malayalam news channels. The Ministry imposed the ban after it found the broadcast to be inappropriate for the public.
Another FIR filed against Arnab Goswami was after the telecast on 29 April. The channel had telecasted the protest of migrants that had gathered near Bandra railway station on April 14. During this telecast, Arnab had raised a question about why are mob gathered only near mosques during the lockdown. The complainant is the secretary of Raza Educational Welfare society, Irfan Abubakar Shaikh. He said that the migrants that had gathered near the railway station had no links with the mosques. Despite that, the channel highlighted the issue and tried to create a communal disturbance. Goswami has again moved to Supreme Court to quash the new FIR.
Time has come when the Indian media self introspects. It has become irresponsible and wayward over time, fueling fake news & hate speech, biased propagandas, reckless narratives, and paid news. Free and independent media is the fourth pillar of any democracy; therefore, considering the power it holds, the media should influence progressive and inclusive social change.
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