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Politics and Defamation

Politics and Defamation

By T.Tanya

Defamation is oral or written statement that hurts someone’s reputation or social standing in the society. A person’s reputation is an important part of the dignity of individual. There are also areas showing significance to one’s reputation in ancient texts. For example, in Bhagwad Gita it is stated that “For a Man of honour Defamation is worse than death”. It is considered as Great Evil. Article 21 of the Constitution also covers the right to live with dignity and reputation. Though each person has freedom of speech as per Article 19(1)(a) of Constitution of India ,the said right is not absolute and has imposed reasonable restrictions for exercising rights in the interest of the security of state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, morality, contempt of court, defamation. Only Defamation Laws protect individual’s private interest and reputation.

In India, Defamation can be viewed as a civil offence as well as criminal offence and may be defined as the writing, publication and speaking of a false statement which causes injury to reputation and good name for private interest. The remedy for a civil defamation is covered under Law of Torts. In civil defamation, a victim can move high court or subordinate courts for seeking damages in the form of monetary compensation from accused. Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code provides an opportunity to the victim to file a criminal case for defamation against the accused. Punishment for the guilty person for criminal defamation is simple imprisonment which may extend to two years or fine or both. Under the criminal law, it is bailable, non-cognizable and compoundable offence.

However there have been several debates regarding the validity of Section 499 and 500. The issue is whether criminalizing defamations are contradicting the fundamental right of freedom of speech. This issue was widely discussed in Subramaniam Swamy Vs Union of India.

In the above mentioned case, numerous petitions were filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India challenging the constitutional validity of the offense of criminal defamation as provided for in Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 199(1) to 199(4) of the Indian Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

Several of the petitioners, such as Subramanian Swamy, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, are politicians who had been charged with criminal defamation. They argued that criminalization of defamation affected their right to freedom of expression. The criminal proceedings against them had been stayed pending the constitutional proceedings.

However the Court upheld the constitutionality of the offense of criminal defamation, stating that it constitutes a reasonable restriction on the right to freedom of expression.  Though the judgment given failed to recognize many aspects, the major downfall of this judgment is powerful people using the laws of defamation as a shield to protect themselves thus silencing the one’s not favouring them. At present, political interests have adopted defamation law to settle scores. And powerful entities such as large corporations have exploited weaknesses in defamation law to threaten, harass, and intimidate journalists and critics.

Defamation originates from the concept of scandalum magnatum meaning slander of great men. This crime was linked to sedition, so insulting a lord was akin to treason. This principle is seen in India as well. Politicians are powerful people and inquiring them can lead to serious consequences. This is different from politicians prosecuting each other since they rarely, if ever, suffer punishment.

Powerful people use defamation as a shield to protect themselves while also use the same tactic to bring down one’s reputation thus causing them to be shunned by the society. Powerful people either be it politicians or corporations, have misused the law of defamation to silence criticism and any negative comment. We see number of cases where parties take the plea of being defamed due to political cases. Transfer of cases from the local police to CBI or defaming one’s image during the time of elections or to divert the common people comes under politically motivated defamations.

The Robert Vadra controversy which has been going on for a while now has attracted the concept of defamation due to political reasons. In October 2011, he was accused by Arvind Kejriwal of taking an interest-free loan of 65 crores and heavy bargains on land from DLF Limited in exchange for political favours. DLF responded that it had dealt with Vadra as a private entrepreneur and that the loan was issued as per general practice of trade, to make payments for land purchased from Vadra. DLF Limited also claimed that the company did not sell him land at a discounted price, and that no quid pro quo took place. Numerous reports have questioned authenticity of balance-sheets of Vadra-owned companies, which claim to have received an overdraft of 7.94 crores from Corporation Bank. Corporation Bank has denied ever providing an overdraft facility to that amount. An enquiry probe had been ordered by the Haryana Government. Vadra wrote on his Facebook, “An enquiry has been ordered by the Government of Haryana. Let us await its outcome. Neither me nor anyone associated with me, has anything to hide. Compliance of all laws were followed in a completely transparent manner. I sincerely hope that an enquiry will not be used for political vendetta.”

The latest controversy in Vadra’s life is a report by a private TV channel which cited investigations by the Income Tax department and the Enforcement Directorate into links between controversial arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari and him. After Income Tax raids on 18 premises owned by Bhandari, emails allegedly sent by Robert Vadra and his executive assistant, Manoj Arora, to London-based Sumit Chadda, a relative of Bhandari, were reportedly found. The channel reported that Robert Vadra and his executive assistant sent emails “discussing payments and renovations for the London home (12 Ellerton House, Bryanston Square) bought for 19 lakh GBP (Rs 19 crore) in October 2009 and sold in June 2010”. The BJP seized on the questioning of Vadra to attack the Congress and alleged he got kickbacks from petroleum and defence deals took place during the UPA regime. 

The troubles for Robert Vadra, who was questioned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) for three days in connection with a money laundering case, may not end anytime soon as the probe agencies are again set to question him in the upcoming days in different cases.

Though all these controversies may gain importance due to personal or political gains, these issues can never redirect the people’s concern about more related problems such as unemployment, farmers’ distress, destruction of small business through demonetization, etc. the ruling party are also accused regarding the veracity of voting machines. The Robert Vadra controversy might have a chance of being carried on to restore their power or to get the support of public as elections are nearing.

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