Netas should not go overboard on defamation suits

Democracies prize free speech and criticism of public figures. Even false criticism of public figures does not qualify as slander in the US and other countries unless accompanied by malice. This can be irksome to politicians. Former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa slapped 213 defamation suits against political opponents in the five years up to 1996. But the Supreme Court rejected these, saying, “As a public figure you must face criticism. ”

Politicians of all stripes have become more sensitive since then. Sometimes this prickliness is carried to extremes that are laughable. Just consider the recent case of Bobby Khare, a government sweeper in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh.

He was doing his usual job of loading garbage and waste paper onto his cart from a garbage collection spot in the city. He did not notice that his load included posters carrying the images of Prime Minister Modi and chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Unluckily for him, somebody snapped a photo of him with his cart containing images of the two worthies and posted this on social media. The post went viral.

BJP supporters interpreted this as a move to defame the two leaders. They accosted Bobby, who explained that he had done, swore he had no ill intentions, and promised never to make the same mistake again. Social media soon filled with an outpouring of support for Bobby. In consequence, Bobby was reinstated.

One has to ask, what did Bobby do that was wrong? For what was he apologising? What exactly was the “mistake” he promised never to repeat?

India has newspapers, magazines and posters replete with images of top politicians. These end up in dumps and must be cleared. At election time, thousands of posters of politicians of all parties are strung up. After the meetings end, the thousands of posters have to be gathered and disposed of as solid waste. In the process, images of politicians are bound to show on the carts of sweepers. So what? Why read plots and defamation into the simple act of cleaning up? It is not feasible for every sweeper to hide the images in every poster, newspaper and magazine he has to clear.

If anybody putting a poster in a cart is at risk of dismissal, who will clear up the mess after election meetings? Can posters just be left on the ground for fear of arrest or sacking? Is it okay for posters to be trampled on by people but not okay for fear of arrest or sacking? Is it okay for posters to be removed by sweepers in carts?

Householders all over India sell old newspapers and magazines as junk to ‘kabadis’. Prime Minister Modi, many of these journals carry your photo. Does selling your image as junk mean the householders are insulting you? Does it make sense to arrest all those buying and selling images of you? Surely not.

Prime Minister, I am sure you too must be flabbergasted by Bobby Khare’s story. Please tell your supporters not to go overboard in their shows of loyalty. In Bobby’s case, public sympathy was with him and rightly so. Far from protecting your reputation, the excesses of your supporters could have hurt your image. Luckily, this story had a happy ending. Please ensure that is always the case.

In another case, filmmaker Avinash Das was arrested for sharing on social media a five-year old photo of home minister Amit Shah with a bureaucrat recently accused of corruption. But why? I have had photos taken with Vijay Mallya, the defaulting liquor baron who has fled to the UK. If somebody publishes photos of me with Mallya, will that mean I have been slandered? Hundreds of politicians, bureaucrats and journalists also had photos taken with Mallya. Is that something to be hidden?
No less than 43% of Members of Parliament face criminal cases, many of a horrific nature. The number in state legislatures is far higher. Is it impermissible to meet these MPs and have photos taken with them? Would the publication of such photos be slander?

Our leaders need to remind their supporters of what the Supreme Court said in Jayalalithaa’s case. Public figures must face criticism without slapping legal cases galore.

This article was originally published in The Times of India on July 23, 2022

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