The police in Muzaffarpur district in Bihar have done well to order the closure of a sedition case against 49 eminent personalities for addressing an open letter to the Prime Minister on the need to stop hate crimes and lynching. The decision could have come much earlier rather than weeks after the Chief Judicial Magistrate ordered the registration of an FIR based on a lawyer’s complaint. The complaint has now been closed as false, an opinion that both the magistrate and the station-house officer could have arrived at on a mere glance at the complaint. Sudhir Kumar Ojha, the lawyer who approached the magistrate, had produced no supporting documents, not even a copy of the letter signed by the writers, filmmakers and artists. Further, it would have been quite obvious that there was nothing in the appeal that promoted disaffection against the government or brought it into hatred and contempt. The complaint had further absurdities. It included penal provisions related to making imputations against national integration, public nuisance, affray and even trespassing into a burial ground! Mr. Ojha has the habit of arraying celebrities and prominent leaders as accused in private complaints and obtaining orders under Section 156(3) of the Cr.P.C. for a police investigation. It is quite certain that both the magistracy and the police are aware of his predilection for serial litigation. A simple search of his name in the website of the CJM’s court reveals that he has filed complaints against Arvind Kejriwal, Imran Khan, Digvijaya Singh, Priyanka Vadra and Chandrababu Naidu in 2019 alone.
The decision to prosecute the advocate for filing false complaints is an encouraging sign that his run may not last. Section 182 of the IPC makes giving false information to a public servant with a view to causing injury or annoyance to another an offence punishable with a six-month jail term or a fine of ₹1,000. And under Section 211, making a false charge of an offence, knowing that there is no lawful ground for doing so, attracts a two-year prison term; and, if a more serious offence is alleged, the accuser may be jailed for even seven years. It is quite obvious that these provisions have not deterred malicious complaints. In cases involving celebrities, it is to be expected that a public outcry would stymie a malicious prosecution, but not everyone can be as lucky. In times when outrage, feigned or real, is used to accuse people of defamation, obscenity, cyber-insults and injuring religious sentiments, it would be wise to recall the Supreme Court’s caution in Khushboo vs. Kanniammal (2010) in which the court quashed multiple private complaints against actor Khushboo for remarks on pre-marital sex with the observations, “It is not the task of the criminal law to punish individuals merely for expressing unpopular views” and that courts should not allow a criminal trial “triggered by false and frivolous complaints, amounting to harassment and humiliation to the accused.”