SC grants interim stay on arrest to Advocate Prashant Bhushan

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday granted interim protection from arrest to Advocate Prashant Bhushan in FIR registered against him by Gujarat police alleging hurting of religious sentiments.

A bench comprising Justice Ashok Bhushan and Sanjiv Khanna issued notice to the Gujarat Government and posted the matter after two weeks.

“No coercive action to be taken till next date of hearing” , the bench ordered.

During the hearing, Justice Ashok Bhushan asked Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave, who was appearing for Prashant Bhushan:

“Mr Dave, anybody can watch anything on TV. How can you say people cannot watch this and that ?”

Dave replied, “No, we are not on people watching something on TV. But we are on FIR”

The FIR was registered over the critical comments made by Bhushan in twitter against Union Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeting a picture of himself watching “Ramayana” serial amidst the national lockdown.

In that context, Bhushan tweeted on March 28 :

“As crores starve and walk hundreds of miles home due to the lockdown, our heartless ministers celebrate consuming and feeding the opium of Ramayana & Mahabharata to the people!”.

Alleging that this tweet amounted to hurting of religious sentiments, one Jaydev Rajnikat Joshi lodged complaint at Bhaktinagar Police Station, Rajot, Gujarat under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

In the writ petition filed in the SC through Advocate Kamini Jaiswal, Bhushan states that his tweet was only highlighting the apathy of the Union Minister in handling the migrant workers crisis, and was not intended at hurting any religious sentiments.

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Bhushan states that no offence is made out against him, even prima facie, and that the FIR amounts to an infringement of his fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

He adds that the phrase “religion is the opium of the masses” is a famous quote of Karl Marx, which has been even used by the Delhi High Court in a 2012 judgment in the case Court on its own Motion v Govt. of NCT of Delhi. He asserts that there was no intention on his part to hurt religious sentiments, or to demean the sacred text of ‘Ramayana’, and that his genuine criticism has been twisted out of context to give a perverse meaning.

Apart from Section 295A, the offence under Section 505(1)(b) of the IPC is also mentioned in the FIR . Bhushan states that this offence is included in the FIR for retweeting two tweets of Ashlin Mathews (editor of National Herald) and Kannan Gopinathan (former IAS officer). Ashlin Mathews on March 29 had criticized the direction of the Union Government to declare sports stadiums as jails for the purpose of housing migrant workers. Kannan Gopinathan had on March 30 criticized the order cutting salaries of AIIMS doctors/staff to contribute to PM Care Fund even as they were in distressing conditions doing their duty.

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Bhushan states that his retweets were valid criticism of the government, and cannot amount to an offence under Section 505 (1)(b), which deals with the act of creating alarm or fear to the public inducing them to commit an offence against public tranquility.

He also states that though several persons had retweeted the tweets of Mathews and Gopinathan, only he has been selectively targeted.

Judging by the yardsticks of a reasonable man, the offences under Section 295A and 505(1)(b) are not made out with respect to his tweets, states the plea.

Bhushan asserts that the FIR is an abuse of process of law to muzzle valid criticism of governmental actions.

“The FIR belatedly registered after almost 15 days is nothing but an attempt to curb criticism of government policies/actions and is malafide, vexatious, malicious, frivolous, and an abuse of the process of law and violative of right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and the ingredients of the offences are not even prima facie made out”, he states in the plea.

Source– Live law

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