When law is blind

Updated - March 21, 2013 02:36 pm IST

Published - March 01, 2013 03:17 pm IST

Its hard to ignore Arindam Chaudhuri of the IIPM. It has got nothing to do with his pony tail or sense of dressing but has got everything to do with his full page advertisements for his Indian Institute of Planning and Management. There is a certain David and Goliath tone in his advertisements as he proclaims his institute to be better than the IIMs, in some categories. The advertisements also challenge those aspiring to an MBA to think differently and go against the grain and so join IIPM. Going against the grain is something that is later recognised and feted in the rat race as innovativeness and forward thinking in annual appraisals.

So it comes as no surprise that he would want to maintain his aura and that of his institute to ensure that his brand and the IIPM brand is not tarnished. The fact that he could shut down government sites which catered to students truly indicates that law is blind.

The problem with law is that it is blind. It is quite similar to the plight of a young blindfolded child trying to hit a piñata – there are always chances of collateral damage. The blindfolded statue of Justice which is supposed to portray Her objectivity and therefore Her greatest strength also becomes Her greatest weakness. She is a victim to interpretative machinations and subjectivity.

The current IIPM case is not the first time when law has been used to prevent criticism and the dissemination of information. But it is not often that such type of cases called 'strategic lawsuit against public participation' (SLAPP) are used against government bodies or established publishing houses who can pay for their own legal defense and who are more than up to the challenge of having their day in court. IIPM has used the SLAPP against smaller publishers writing about it. In 2005 IIPM filed a case in Silchar against Rashmi Bansal a blogger and editor of Just Another Magazine (JAM) when she pointed out the IIPM is not accredited to UGC or AICTE. However, when IIPM tried to do the same against Caravan, after the magazine published an indepth article about IIPM and Arindam Chaudhuri in 2011, the magazine was able to get a SC direction to transfer the case from Silchar to Delhi High Court.

IIPM is not the first body to use the law to prevent society from learning more about it or from stopping members of society from speaking about it. Sunita Narain in Down to Earth wrote about SLAPP when in 2006 Pepsico filed a case against Centre for Science and Environment. She mentioned that in 2003 a doctor in Kerala who had found abnormalities in children, linked to Endosulphan use, received a legal notice from Pesticide Association of India after he wrote a letter to a magazine arguing against the findings of the government appointed O P Dubey committee. She also writes about the instance of Crop Care Federation and United Phosphorous suing individuals who spoke about the problems of pesticides use. Abroad, Monsanto has filed SLAPP suits against activists and has even gone and sued farmers whose farms have been contaminated by the company's genetically engineered crops. The Ecologist magazine destroyed copies of a complete issue that was about Monsanto because it feared expensive court cases. Thus proving the efficacy of SLAPP.

So, the law that was enshrined to protect is being used to crush free speech and quell dissent. However, it is not only the private sector who use SLAPP. Even the government uses forms of SLAPP to prevent other opinions from being voiced and heard. The case of Naveen Soorinje, the Mangalore journalist who captured thugs of the right-wing Hindu group Jagarana Vedike beating up youth is one such example. The use of the IT Act against the Shaheen Dhada who suggested, on FaceBook that, there was no need for a bandh after Thackeray expired and people should remember Bhagat Singh, and against Renu Shrinivas who liked it or against the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi will have a chilling effect on free speech much like what is desired by a SLAPP suit.

A SLAPP suit is a one off instance used to deter similar incursions in the future. Its the legal option to what the Jagarana Vedike and other nationalistic and religio-fundamentalistic groups do. Though law and justice is about deterrence, some have morphed it into a Frankenstein to scare others from voicing opinion which is either different from the majority or which benefits society or could add to common knowledge and thus help others make informed decisions. Thus SLAPP is about preventing citizens from using their constitutional rights which could also include forming opinions and sharing them.

If law is an embodiment of our morals and biases, then does SLAPP expose the inability of it to be applied objectively? Does SLAPP exist because law is applied blindly? The fact that many states in the US have come up with anti-SLAPP legislation proves this sorry point.

Unfortunately objectivity in law be it in its creation or its application is a pipe dream because we after all are humans. So, SLAPP will continue being used until we as individuals and as a society collectively recognise homogeneity leads to intellectual and social demise. And more importantly that an opinion is just one point of view which a person has every right to and which can be effectively countered with another.

Samir Nazareth is an environmental and socio-economic issue commentator. He can be contacted at samirnazareth@hotmail.com.

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