Journalists have been hauled up in the past for writing allegedly objectionable articles. But the arrest of R.R. Gopal, Editor of the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran , Chennai, on a trumped-up charge under a rarely used section of the Indian Penal Code is an extraordinary instance of abuse of power. The Tamil Nadu Governor’s office had complained to the police, seeking to book Mr. Gopal under Section 124 of the IPC, citing some articles published in the magazine. This section, seldom used even in colonial times, applies to assaulting high constitutional functionaries such as the President and the Governor with “an intent to compel or restrain the use of any lawful power”. It is plain as day that it was never intended to cover writing articles but rather cases where these functionaries are prevented from exercising their power though criminal force, attempts to overawe, or wrongful restraint. Whether the articles in question were in bad taste is the subject for a separate debate. The point is that, however offensive or derogatory, they did not attract Section 124. In an environment where the lower judiciary reflexively signs remand orders, the Metropolitan Magistrate in Chennai must be commended for realising the absurdity of the prosecution’s case and declining to jail Mr. Gopal.
Governor Banwarilal Purohit is no stranger to Section 124, having threatened a few months ago to use it when the DMK staged black flag demonstrations at sites where the Governor held meetings with district-level officials. It is doubtful whether a black flag demonstration can be construed as an attempt to “overawe” the Governor in a manner that restrains his office from exercising power. Overawe, at the very least, would suggest the commission of an offence that poses a real danger to the exercise of authority. Of course, to extend the meaning of “overawe” to a work of journalism is simply ridiculous. So is the claim in the police complaint prepared by the Deputy Secretary to the Governor that the offending articles express an “intention of inducing or compelling the Governor… to refrain from exercising his lawful powers”. The articles had linked Mr. Purohit’s name to the controversy surrounding assistant professor Nirmala Devi, who is in jail for allegedly trying to lure students into sex work. If Mr. Purohit believed they were unfounded and damaged his reputation, there were other forms of legal redress available to him. By citing them to seek registration of a Section 124 case against the magazine’s Editor, journalists and employees, the Governor’s office has only turned the spotlight on itself unnecessarily. He would do himself a favour by withdrawing the complaint; it is unlikely the Tamil Nadu police will take such a decision on its own.