Allahabad High Court

Allahabad High Court quashes criminal case against journalists Siddharth Varadarajan, Ismat Ara for reporting on farmer’s death during 2021 Republic Day protest in Delhi

The high court’s clean chit to the journalists is a refreshing decision, coming close on the heels of similar reprieve to Professor Ratan Lal, an academic in Delhi, who was granted bail on Saturday by a Delhi court.

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IN a significant decision, a division bench of the Allahabad High Court on May 25 quashed a criminal case against the founding editor of The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan and its reporter Ismat Ara in connection with their report on the death of a farmer allegedly by a police bullet during the farmers’ protest in Delhi on Republic Day last year.

A division bench of Justices Ashwani Kumar Mishra and Rajnish Kumar held that the news report contained no opinion of the author nor was there any assertion on the part of Varadarajan and Ara that might have the effect of provocating or inciting the people.

 “Nothing was also brought before this court to indicate that there was any disturbance or riot which may have any bearing on public disorder on account of the publication of news/ tweet of the petitioners”, the bench ruled.

On January 31, 2021, Varadarajan and Ara were booked by the Rampur police for the offence under Sections 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code (‘IPC’).

During the farmers’ protests last year, a person named Navreet Singh Dibdiba, hailing from Rampur, died near Delhi’s ITO. The death was reported by The Wire under news titled Autopsy Doctor Told Me He’d Seen the Bullet Injury but Can Do Nothing as His Hands are Tied’ and the same was also shared on Twitter by Ara and Varadarajan. The report contained a statement from the victim’s family that had been alleging that death was caused by a bullet injury. However, the state government had been claiming that the death was caused due to an accident involving a tractor of the deceased.

Soon after report was published by The Wire, the three doctors who carried out the postmortem issued a statement denying that they had spoken to the media or any other person, or they made any such statement. The Wire also published the clarification issued by the police fithe same day. However, a first information report (‘FIR’) was lodged against Varadarajan and Ara on a private complaint by one Sanju Turaiha alleging that Varadarajan and Ara sought to incite the masses, spread riots, tarnish the image of medical officers, and disturb law and order.

Both Varadarajan and Ara contended before the high court that they had been wrongly and falsely implicated in the case. They argued that they had only published the statement of the parents of the deceased and the contradictions of the doctors was also published/uploaded at the earliest after its release. The petitioners also drew the attention of the court to a petition pending with the Delhi High Court filed by the grandfather of the deceased seeking a court-monitored probe into the death of his grandson, in which notice has been issued by the Delhi High Court.

Holding the FIR as not sustainable in the eyes of the law, the high court, relying upon the decision of the Supreme Court in Amish Devgan versus Union of India & Ors. (2020), held that “The word ‘Promote’ does not imply mere describing and narrating a fact, or giving opinion, criticising the point of view or actions of another person. It requires that the speaker should actively incite the audience to cause public disorder”.

“This active incitement can be gauged by the content of the speech, the context and surrounding circumstances and the intent of the speaker. However, in case the speaker does not actively incite the descent into public disorder and is merely pointing out why a certain person or group is behaving in a particular manner, what are their demands and their point of view or when the speaker interviews such person or group, it would be a passive delivery of facts and opinions which may not amount to promotion. In such circumstances it can not be said that the news was published to create nuisance or riot and incite the people”, the high court held.

Before moving to the high court, Varadarajan and Ara had approached the Supreme Court. On September 8, 2021, the court asked them to approach the high court for quashing of the FIR. It had also granted them protection from any coercive action.

The Allahabad High Court’s decision comes close on the heels of Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (‘CMM’), Delhi, Siddhartha Malik ruling on Saturday that the feeling of hurt felt by an individual cannot represent an entire group or community, and any such complaint regarding hurt feelings has to be seen in its context, considering the entire spectrum of facts and circumstances.

The CMM had set free historian, and Delhi University Associate Professor, Ratan Lal, who was arrested by the Delhi Police on Friday. The CMM granted bail to Lal, arrested for alleged objectionable remarks on social media related to claims of a ‘Shivling’ at Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque, saying his post, though reprehensible, does not indicate an attempt to promote hatred between communities.

Lal was arrested under Sections 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) and 295A (deliberate act to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion) of the IPC.

Click here to read the Allahabad High Court’s full order.

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