In a major setback for the managing editor and journalist of News18, Amish Devgan, the Supreme Court on Monday refused to quash the criminal action initiated on him over his alleged defamatory statements against Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.
The bench comprising of Justices AM Khanwilkar and Sanjiv Khanna had, however, protected Devgan from immediate arrest and extended the interim protection from any coercive action, provided he cooperated with the investigation. Further, the court clubbed various FIRs lodged against Devgan in different states and transferred them to Ajmer in Rajasthan.
Allegations against Amish Devgan
As many as seven FIRs have been filed in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telangana against the anchor for his remarks during a program telecast called ‘Aar Paar’ on his channel, on June 15. Two were registered at Ajmer and Kota in Rajasthan, one at Bahadurpura in Hyderabad, and two in Nanded and Pydhonie in Maharashtra. The FIR in Pydhonie was registered on the basis of a complaint by Arif Razvi, general secretary of Raza Academy, who had accused Devgan of hurting religious sentiments.
The FIRs against the anchor invoke sections 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.
However, Devgan maintains it was an inadvertent error. In a tweet posted on June 17, the news anchor claimed that he was actually referring to Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji, but mistakenly ended up naming Chisti instead.
“I sincerely apologize for this grave error and the anguish it may have caused to followers of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, whom I revere,” Devgan said in his tweet. “I have in the past sought blessings at his dargah. I regret this error,” he added.
Submissions before the Supreme Court
Senior Advocate Siddharth Luthra, who appeared on behalf of the anchor, had cited a Constitution bench judgment stating that section 153B of IPC only punishes when there is a deliberate and calculated intent to disrupt the public order and create religious disharmony. He said that in the case of Manzar Syed Khan it was noted that the test of quashing is if the speech is of aggravated form and with the intent of disrupting public order.
Luthra further submitted that the registration of FIR all over India is interesting but a mala fide exercise as a multiplicity of FIRs will make it impossible for an individual to work as a journalist.
While citing to the judgment in TT Antony vs. State, to discuss if multiple FIRs can be filed on the same set of facts, Luthra added that the case of TT Antony was followed in the Babu Bhai case and the test is to see whether it is the same incident, where the Court has to check if the occurrence is of the same incident. If the answer is yes, then the second FIR is liable to be quashed and in the present case, every FIR relates to the same incident of June 15, he added.
Devgan cited that the plea concerned his life and liberty.
“In a well-orchestrated manner – the petitioner has been made a victim of country-wide filing of a false and baseless criminal complaint and FIRs on the one hand, and on the other hand, petitioner, his family, and his crew have been abused unabashedly on social media and by personal messages by unknown persons. The petitioner has also received several death threats from various anti-social elements,” the plea submitted.
Luthra further argued that Devgan would be entitled to the benefit under Section 95 of the Indian Penal Code as the ‘inadvertent slip of the tongue’ that led to taking the Sufi saint’s name could only have caused a “slight harm.”
Subsequently, the bench pondered upon whether the apology tendered by Devgan over Twitter and through a video message was an afterthought following criticism on social media, or whether it was an honest face-saving exercise.
The top court had then granted protection to Devgan from any coercive action in connection with the FIRs which was extended from time to time.