The Madras High Court on Thursday has quashed the FIR lodged against YouTuber Maridhas over his remarks on the Tablighi Jamaat Conference held in New Delhi in March 2020 when the first wave of Covid-19 pandemic had struck the country.
A single-judge Bench of Madras High Court at Madurai comprising of Justice G.R. Swaminathan has held that the Petitioner as a YouTuber actively commenting on current affairs was entitled to protection under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
Advocate General Mr.R.Shunmugasundaram appeared for Respondent No. 1 – State, Counsel Mr.Anantha Padmanabhan appeared for the Petitioner, and Counsel Mr.A.Raja appeared for Respondent No.2 – Complainant before the High Court.
The Petitioner-Accused was accused of offences punishable under Sections 292A, 295A, and 505(2) of I.P.C. The Complainant-Second Respondent in the case had watched a YouTube video of the Petitioner and got an FIR registered against the Petitioner on the very next day.
The Second Respondent had alleged that the Petitioner had falsely spoken that the attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat conference held in March 2020 at New Delhi were spreading Covid-19 and he also insulted Islam with an intention to create ill-will and discord between Muslims and non-Muslims.
It was contended by the Counsel appearing for the Petitioner before the High Court that the Petitioner, as a responsible YouTuber and Commentator on current affairs, had merely exercised his Right to Free Speech.
While it was argued on behalf of Respondent No. 1 that the Petitioner after obtaining anticipatory bail from the Sessions Court did not surrender and execute sureties, which is why he was arrested. Further, it was contended that the Petitioner had used potentially provocative expressions.
The Respondent No. 2 – Complainant argued that the presentation of the Petitioner was replete with references to Islam and Terrorism. Any person watching the video would develop ill-will hatred towards Muslims.
The Tablighi event
In this context, the High Court noted –
"The Tablighi event was uniformly characterized as a superspreader. As a prominent commentator dealing with current affairs, the petitioner in his YouTube channel spoke on the subject."
The Court observed that, "No one can deny that Tablighi Jamaat came under severe and harsh criticism for its reckless and irresponsible conduct during March 2020. There are established reports that its puritanical and revivalistic project prepares the ground for islamic radiclation. Probably that is why even Saudi Arabia has recently banned it as a terrorist organization."
Section 292A IPC - Printing, etc., of grossly indecent or scurrilous matter or matter intended for blackmail
The Madras High Court observed the following while referring to Section 292A IPC –
"This provision will be attracted only if the offending video contains statements or materials which are grossly indecent, or scurrilous or intended for blackmail. "Indecent" relates to something morally offensive because it involves sex or being naked. "Scurrilous" means something that is very rude and insulting and intended to damage somebody's reputation. "Blackmail" refers to the crime of demanding money from a person by threatening to make a revelation about him."
Further, the Bench opined, "One can very easily come to the conclusion that the primary object of Section 292A of IPC is to come down heavily on what is known in common parlance as "Yellow Journalism". Bona fide expressions of opinions on public questions or issues of public importance cannot be construed as scurrilous. I fail to understand as to how such a provision can be invoked in this case."
Section 295A IPC - Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs
In this context, the Court held –
"The petitioner has nowhere targeted Islam or the religious beliefs of Muslims as a class. In fact, the petitioner has given several disclaimers in his video. He repeatedly cautioned the viewers that his presentation should not be misconstrued as criticism of Muslims. There is no reference to religion even in the remotest sense of the term in the video in question. By no stretch of imagination could Section 295A of IPC have been invoked."
Section 505 IPC – Statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred, or ill-will between classes
"The petitioner's video does not involve two groups at all. There is no reference to religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community," the Bench observed.
The Court further placed reliance on the findings of the Supreme Court in such cases and noted, "The Hon'ble Supreme Court had clearly held that unless one group is sought to be pitted against the other on the aforementioned grounds, the penal provisions are not at all attracted."
The Court additionally added that the Petitioner's intention was that the spread of the pandemic must be stopped. In this context, the Court noted –
"He wanted the persons who attended the conference to co-operate with the administration and the health workers. "Contact tracing" was then a new addition to the national vocabulary. The cyber cell of the state police was effectively deployed to trace not only the attendees of the conference but also everyone else who came in contact with them. The petitioner nowhere spoke in a divisive manner. In fact, he did not even challenge the ideology of Tablighi Jamaat which has now been proscribed as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabian Government."
Further, the Bench held, "When pandemic struck, it was seen as another form of bio-warfare. Such reports were very much made even in the mainstream media. Therefore, the petitioner cannot be blamed or faulted for having voiced his apprehensions. The petitioner held aloft icons such as Shri.Azim Premji. This shows that the petitioner never intended to cause any feeling of alienation in the Muslim community. A reading of the entire transcript of the video in question gives an impression that the petitioner wanted everyone to stand together with the administration in a time of grave health emergency."
The Court furthermore noted that Tablighi Jamaat cannot be equated with Islam. It is a religious organization professing particular goals.
In the light of these observations, the High Court quashed the FIR against the Petitioner and held that the impugned FIR was illegal.