High constitutional functionaries, from the President of India to government Ministers, need not depend on the state machinery to prosecute his or her defamer, the Supreme Court held in a judgment on Monday.
A constitutional functionary can choose to shed the identity of his high office and don the role of a private citizen to prosecute damaging comments made about his public functions in office.
Justice V. Ramasubramanian, who authored the verdict, also said a political rival’s challenge to a public office holder that he would “expose” the latter’s “scam” would not amount to defamation.
“Statements such as ‘I will expose you’, ‘I will expose your corrupt practices’ and ‘I will expose the scam in which you are involved’, etc., are not by nature defamatory unless there is something more,” Justice Ramasubramanian reasoned.
The judgment clarified the law while refusing to accept BJP leader Manoj Tiwari's argument that Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia could not have filed a criminal defamation complaint against him in his individual capacity but should have gone through the public prosecutor after securing prior sanction from the government.
Mr. Tiwari had appealed to the Supreme Court after the Delhi High Court refused to quash a Magistrate’s summons in 2019 on Mr. Sisodia’s defamation complaint.
Mr. Tiwari had argued that Section 199 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Code provided a “special procedure” for Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Governors, Ministers or any other public servants to initiate prosecution for defamation. A public prosecutor had to do it for them after getting prior sanction from the State or Central government. The prosecutor then filed a complaint before a Sessions Court, which had the exclusive power to hear and try the case.
On the other hand, Section 199 made it relatively easier for an ordinary citizen to fight defamation. A private individual, unlike a constitutional functionary, needed to only file a complaint with the local Magistrate, which was what Mr. Sisodia did.
Justice Ramasubramanian, sitting with Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, who headed the Bench, said a constitutional functionary or public servant can choose to either go through the special procedure or opt to fight it as a private citizen. One procedure did not negate the other.
The special procedure was “in addition to and not in derogation of the right that a public servant always had as an individual. He never lost his right merely because he became a public servant and merely because the allegations related to official discharge of his duties”.
The apex court dismissed Mr. Tiwari’s challenge to the Magistrate’s summons.
However, the court set aside the summons issued to BJP leader Vijender Gupta in the same case. Mr. Sisodia had complained that Mr. Gupta tweeted 24 questions and made a statement that the former’s answers to the queries would disclose a “scam”.
“The claim made by a person involved in politics that the answers provided by his rival in public office to the questions posed by him, will expose his scam, cannot be per se stated to be intended to harm the reputation of the person holding office,” Justice Ramasubramanian reasoned.