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On 23d July, the Supreme Court passed an order on an appeal from the Delhi High Court’s decision to issue an ad-interim injunction upon the publication of the book “Godman to Tycoon – The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev.” On the submission of counsel, the Court requested the Delhi High Court to decide the case by the end of September. The Ramdev Saga – for it has not rumbled on for more than a year – is a stark illustration of how, on the subject of freedom of speech, different levels of the judiciary treat this fundamental right with an indifference that borders on contempt.

Let us briefly review the history of Godman to Tycoon’s entanglement with the Courts. To recall, this is a biography of Baba Ramdev, the yoga guru and business entrepreneur who, by any account, is a hugely influential figure upon the country’s political stage. After the book was published Ramdev’s lawyers sought moved for an ex parte ad-interim injunction before a Delhi trial court, and were granted the injunction on 4th August, 2017 (an ex-parte ad-interim injunction, by definition, is passed without hearing the other side). The injunction remained operational, and two months later, in October 2017, the author appealed to the Sessions Judge. It took five months (!) for arguments to conclude, and at the end of April, the Sessions Judge lifted the injunction, observing – among other things – that the author had argued that the biography was based on factual material, and that Ramdev himself was, indisputably, a public figure. Ramdev appealed to the High Court, and the single judge (Justice R.K. Gauba) restored the injunction on 10th May. That remains the situation today. It is now one year, and – thanks entirely to the Courts – the book has remained under an injunction for all but ten days, and without any finding on merits.

Judicial injunctions – especially those passed at the ad-interim stage – are devastating weapons against free speech. By preventing the publication and distribution of a book, they choke off and distort the “marketplace of ideas” at its very source. Contrary to a penalty imposed upon a speaker or a writer after a full-fledged trial, injunctions suffocate speech at the very outset. For these reasons, some scholars have (albeit controversially) compared them to “prior restraints” on speech (e.g., the governments banning books). Whether or not a judicial injunction is equivalent to a book ban, however, it is at least clear that its impact upon a fundamental right as foundational as free speech requires a court to exercise great caution before it issues injunctions.

Ironically, it is the Delhi High Court that has been most sensitive to this (rather basic) point. In Khushwant Singh v Maneka Gandhi – a judgment that Justice Gauba appears to have been singularly unaware of – a division bench of the High Court refused Maneka Gandhi’s application for an injunction upon a chapter of Khushwant Singh’s autobiography that dealt with the Gandhis. Maneka Gandhi had argued that the contents of the chapter were both defamatory, and impinged upon her privacy. Crucially, Justice Kaul observed:

… the respondent has already chosen to claim damages and her claim is yet to be adjudicated upon. She will have remedy if the statements are held to be vulgar and defamatory of her and if the appellants fail to establish the defense of truth.

We are unable to accept the contention advanced on behalf of the respondent by Mr. Raj Panjwani that if the statements relate to private lives of persons, nothing more is to be said and the material must be injuncted from being published unless it is with the consent of the person whom the subject matter relates to. Such pre-censorship cannot be countenanced in the Scheme of our constitutional framework.

One aspect is very material – a categorical assertion of the author to stand by his statement and claim to substantiate the same. In such a situation interlocutory injunction restraining publication should not be granted.

There is no doubt that there are two competing interests to be balanced as submitted by the learned counsel for the respondent, that of the author to write and publish and the right of an individual against invasion of privacy and the threat of defamation. However, the balancing of these rights would be considered at the stage of the claim of damages for defamation rather than a preventive action for injuncting of against the publication itself.

We do not think it is a matter where the author should be restrained from publishing the same when he is willing to take the consequence of any civil action for damages and is standing by what he has written … there is no question of any irreparable loss or injury since respondent herself has also claimed damages which will be the remedy in case she is able to establish defamation and the appellant is unable to defend the same as per well established principles of law.

Justice Kaul’s crucial insight was that in civil suits for defamation or breach of privacy, where monetary damages are claimed, the “balancing” between the freedom of speech on the one hand, and an individual’s right to reputation and to a private life on the other, is to be struck through a final judgment on merits. This is especially true when the writer or speaker stands by her words, and is willing to defend them through the course of a trial. Granting an injunction before trial – and thereby putting the book out of circulation – would effectively censor the speaker, and prejudge her legal defences before she even had a chance to make them. On the other hand, the individual alleging defamation or breach of privacy would always have a remedy open to her if she was able to prove her case – that of monetary damages.

Justice Kaul’s observations were developed in great detail a few years later, in the famous Tata v Greenpeace judgment. This case involved a request for an injunction upon a computer game that, the plaintiff claimed, maligned its reputation. Embarking upon an exhaustive survey of common law, Justice Bhat summarised the position as follows: the foundational value of freedom of speech in a democracy required that a Court should be extremely slow to grant an injunction pending trial. In particular, a Court ought to refrain from doing so if the writer or speaker puts forward a defence, and is willing to stand trial. Only if the defence is prima facie frivolous or unsustainable, should the Court grant an injunction. Justice Bhat noted that this had been the position in common law and, after the passage of the Indian Constitution and Article 19(1)(a), applied with even greater force.

When you apply these principles to Justice Gauba’s “order” of 10th May 2018, its staggering ignorance of the law is evident. The Learned Judge observes that:

The contents of the book to which exception is taken in the plaint of the petitioner, some of which have been extracted, prima facie, do seem to carry insinuations as are likely to harm the reputation of the petitioner in public esteem. In her written statement, the author of the book (respondent herein) while raising preliminary submissions and objections has claimed that the statements in the book “can be justified”, they having been penned with “journalistic objectivity” in fair and impartial manner, and “in good faith for public good” not being defamatory. The written statement of the publisher (respondent in these petitions), inter alia, states that there is “no malice or personal grudge” against the petitioner as an individual, the contents of the book representing “only reported true facts as gleaned from publicly available documents and merely contains legitimate and reasonable surmises and conclusions drawn therefrom” and further that every statement appearing in the book is “either itself a demonstrably true statement of fact, or a reasonably and legitimately-held opinion or inference of the author of the book.” In sharp contrast, in the impugned publication the publisher has added a disclaimer stating that the views and opinions expressed therein are “the author’s own” and further that the facts contained therein “were reported to be true as on the date of publication by the author to the publishers of the book, and the publishers are not in any way liable for their accuracy or veracity.” The use of the expressions “surmises” and “inferences”, coupled with the disclaimer, shows the matter requires deeper scrutiny to test the veracity of the claim of the author as to the truth.

First of all, it is difficult to understand what the “sharp contrast” is between the author and the publisher’s statements. Secondly, it is difficult to understand what the disclaimer has to do with anything. But thirdly – and most importantly – the judgment concedes that the matter requires “deeper scrutiny”, but proceeds to injunct publication in the meantime anyway! If Justice Gauba had perhaps taken some time out to visit the Judges’ Library and consult the precedent of his own Court, he may have understood how this reasoning inverts the entire system of values that underlies the Constitution, placing the burden upon a writer to justify her exercise of free speech, instead of upon those (in this case, a very powerful public figure) who seek to silence her.

If the Supreme Court’s request is adhered to, and the case decided by the end of September, the book will have been injuncted for fourteen months before any kind of review on merits is completed. In this case, it perhaps doesn’t matter, because Ramdev is not going to depart from the public stage any time soon. In other cases, however, time-bound publication is of the essence, and an injunction of this kind that is then left to the vagaries of our snail-paced judicial system, can destroy the entire purpose of writing the book in the first place.

Unfortunately, however, despite the clearly-reasoned judgments in Khushwant Singh and Tata v Greenpeace, trigger-happy judicial injunctions are the norm rather than the exception. In a post written two months ago, while examining some other egregious orders from various High Courts, I had made the following observation:

These “interim” orders, which have the luxury of being virtually unreasoned because they are granted before any kind of substantive hearing, effectively kill the speech in question, given how long legal proceedings take in India. They are effectively decisions on the merits without any kind of examination of merits, and they choke off the marketplace of ideas at the very source. In developing a philosophy of “gag first, ask questions later“, the High Courts seem to be blissfully oblivious of the fact that what is at stake is a foundational fundamental right (Article 19(1)(a)); this is not some civil suit where you direct “status quo” pending final resolution. The more that “gag first, ask questions later” becomes standard judicial practice, the more Article 19(1)(a) will be reduced to a dead letter – and the doing of the deed will not be by the executive, but by the judiciary.

The problem is less one of doctrine – the doctrine exists – and more one of attitude. Judges at all level of the judiciary tend to view the freedom of speech more as an annoyance or a bother, rather than a foundational democratic value. To them, Victorian ideas of the sacrosanctity of “reputation” continue to hold overriding importance (this was visible, for example, in the Supreme Court’s criminal defamation judgment). As long as that attitude continues to prevail, notwithstanding the finely-reasoned judgments of a Justice Kaul or a Justice Bhat, that excavate and lay out all the principles in detail, the “gag first, ask questions later” judicial culture will continue.

Another possible alternative is for the Supreme Court to step in and clearly delineate the standards to be followed when granting or withholding an injunction in a free speech case.

And who knows, in the days to come, it might even be the Ramdev case that provides it with that opportunity.