In a democracy, an elected government cannot muzzle fair criticism, the Supreme Court said on Friday, responding to a case filed by Tamil Nadu chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, against a political rival.
Last year, actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth, also known as 'Captain', had been slapped a number of defamation cases for discrediting the Jayalalithaa government, along with his wife Premalatha and other colleagues. The head of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) had ripped into Jayalalithaa's style of functioning at a public meeting in Dharmapuri and later put the blame for the Chennai floods on her.
While upholding the constitutionality of the criminal defamation provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a bench of Justices Dipak Misra and C. Nagappan issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government, headed by Jayalalithaa and her party All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
Responding to a petition filed by Vijayakanth, against whom the public prosecutor had initiated criminal proceedings after receiving sanction from the Jayalalithaa government, the bench took note of the argument made by the counsel, G.S. Mani. The latter had asked if it was fair to prosecute an individual under Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC only because they had happened to hold a different, or dissenting, opinion.
The bench found substance in the reasoning that the spirit of democracy would be hard to sustain if political parties were threatened with criminal defamation for expressing a contrary point of view. "Citizenry's right to criticise cannot be atrophied by constant launching of criminal prosecution for defamation on every issue," the bench said. "When criticism in a vibrant democracy is crippled, the democracy would lose its cherished values."
Jayalalithaa, who came back to power after a resounding victory in the recent assembly polls, is known for her intolerance of critics. She rarely gives media interviews and occasionally appears on the balcony of her Chennai residence to give audience to her fans.
While taking oath after the recent elections, several ministers from her party prostrated before her in deference at the ceremony. In 2012, when she was imprisoned for nine months on graft charges, her followers went on a rampage, destroying public property in Chennai and shaving their heads to convey their grief. O. Paneerselvam, her replacement, shed tears while being sworn in as chief minister and refused to use her office as a mark of deference.
The court has given Jayalalithaa four weeks to respond to the matter. It has also put a stay on the criminal proceedings against Vijayakanth and scheduled the case for hearing on 28 August.