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The present Chief Justice of India is no friend of free speech. He upheld the constitutionality of criminal defamation in a near-indecipherable judgment. He invented a new standard of obscenity for writings about “historically respectable personalities.” He forced cinema owners to play the national anthem before every film for more than a year through an “interim” (!) order, never explaining the constitutional authority for doing so, and relenting only when both his brother judges and the government urged that the order be recalled. He toyed with inventing a doctrine called “auto-block”, which would have required search engines to automatically block certain key-words, before finally deciding against it. He cooked up a phrase called “constitutional compassion” while issuing notice on the question of what politicians could or could not say with respect to an ongoing criminal investigation (the case was disposed of after the politician apologised). His judgments and orders have reflected not just a hostility towards the principle of freedom of expression, but – as I have written on this blog multiple times – a near-contemptuous disregard of precedent and the separation of powers in order to write this hostility into law.

There was some hope that, being caught up with Constitution Bench hearings since the start of his tenure as Chief Justice, Article 19(1)(a) would get through the last year or so before his retirement relatively unscathed. That hope has now been dashed with today’s judgment in the Meesha book ban case. In some ways, this judgment is worse than the ones that have preceded it, because of its insidious character: it is a sugar-coated poison-pill.

Meesha is a serialised novel written by the Malayalam author S. Hareesh. Its publication sparked a protest from a group that claimed that its dialogues were insulting towards temple-going women. Both the government and the civil society came to Hareesh’s support, and – as will become important later on in this essay – the government refused to ban the book. Meanwhile, however, a “public interest” petition was filed before the Supreme Court, asking for the book to be banned. Showing great alacrity, the Chief Justice allowed an “urgent mentioning” to take the case out of turn (July 31), his bench heard the arguments, asked for a translation of the “offending” passages, and reserved judgment (August 2), and the Chief Justice delivered the judgment today (September 5).

The Chief Justice begins his judgment by quoting from his own anti-free speech judgment in the “historically respectable personalities” case (paragraph 2), and spends the next thirty pages waxing eloquent about the importance of free expression. The judgment is peppered with phrases such as “pragmatic realism” (paragraph 5), “fertile faculties of the human mind”, “literary pusillanimity” and “abject obscenity” (?!) (paragraph 27), “the unwritten codes of maturity” (paragraph 28), “intellectual pusillanimity” (paragraph 33), “the passion of didactism” (paragraph 34), “pyramiding a superstructure without the infrastructure” (paragraph 35), “an intrusion to create sensation” (paragraph 36), “thematic subsidiary concepts” (paragraph 38), and “objective perceptibility” (paragraph 39). About ten paragraphs are spent discussing the contents of the book, and another three paragraphs on analysing whether there was actually something wrong with it. Louis Brandeis, Pablo Picasso, and Voltaire (incorrectly) are all name-checked. And the upshot is that the petition for banning is dismissed, with “no order as to costs.”

Now, what is so problematic about this, you may wonder. After all, the Court rejected the ban, and said all kinds of wonderful things about the freedom of speech. The problem is this: this case needed to have been dismissed at the outset, because under the Constitution, the Court has no power to ban books. But by issuing notice and deciding the case on merits, the Court has now given itself – and every High Court in the country – a new and dangerous power of censorship.

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression. Article 19(2) authorises the “State” to impose reasonable restrictions upon this freedom, by “law”. There is some dispute over whether, for the purposes of Part III of the Constitution, the Court counts as “State”. However, there is no dispute over the fact that the word “law” refers only to Parliamentary law, or secondary legislation (such as statutory rules or regulations). It does not refer to judgments. This flows from the text of Article 13, the judgment of the six-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Kharak Singh v State of UP (not overruled on this point), and the judgment of the two-judge bench in Union of India v Naveen Jindal. What follows? It follows that, under our constitutional scheme, the Supreme Court cannot play censor. The Court does not have the power to restrict speech, censor films, ban books, and force people to say (or not to say) certain things. What the Court does have the power to do is to review State action that falls under the above categories, and test it for constitutionality.

This basic jurisdictional point was entirely missed by the Chief Justice in his ill-thought national anthem order, and many months on, no lessons have been learnt. Today’s judgment once again arrogates to the Court a power that the Constitution explicitly denies it. Not only is the judgment wrong in law, but by ignoring binding precedent on the point, it is also per incuriam.

This is not a formalist argument. Its importance can be gauged by looking at how the legal framework for banning books actually does work. Section 95 of the Code of Criminal Procedure states, in relevant part:

Where-

(a) any newspaper, or book, or

(b) any document, wherever printed, appears to the State Government to contain any matter the publication of which is punishable under section 124A or section 153A or section 153B or section 292 or section 293 or section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860 ), the State Government may, by notification, stating the grounds of its opinion, declare every copy of the issue of the newspaper containing such matter, and every copy of such book or other document to be forfeited…

The power to ban books, therefore, lies with the state government, and can be exercised only where, in the government’s view, certain specific sections of the IPC have been violated. Now, the remedy against the state government’s decision is provided for under Section 96:

Any person having any interest in any newspaper, book or other document, in respect of which a declaration of forfeiture has been made under section 95, may, within two months from the date of publication in the Official Gazette of such declaration, apply to the High Court to set aside such declaration on the ground that the issue of the newspaper, or the book or other document, in respect of which the declaration was made, did not contain any such matter as is referred to in sub- section (1) of section 95.

Section 96(2) then goes on to state that an application under Section 96(1) must be mandatorily heard by a special bench of three judges.

The legal scheme, therefore, sets up three layers of statutory safeguards. The first is that it limits the offences for which books may be banned. Secondly, at the first instance, it leaves the decision in the hands of the government, and makes a provision for judicial review only if a book is banned. In other words, if the government elects not to ban a book, there is no judicial review against that decision (at least as per the legal scheme). And thirdly, if the government does ban a book, a special bench of the High Court is bound to review it in accordance with the law and the Constitution. At the heart of this scheme is the idea of the separation of powers: decisions restricting expression are to be taken by the government, and then reviewed by the Court for constitutionality.

Today’s judgment takes a sledgehammer to this carefully calibrated scheme in four distinct ways. First, it wipes out the separation of powers, and creates an entirely new book-banning authority – the court itself (this was exactly what the Bombay High Court did a few months ago with respect to the censorship of films, a decision that was appealed to the incoming CJI – who did nothing). Second, by making constant references to “defamation”, it also wipes out the careful limitation of the categories under which books can be banned. Section 95 of the CrPC makes no mention of defamation or Section 499 of the IPC (criminal defamation), thus making it clear that the government cannot ban a book on the ground that it is defamatory. But apparently, now, a Court can. Third, instead of limiting the right to review in case a book has been banned, it now allows just about anybody to move a “PIL” and ask for a book to be banned. This effectively opens up an entirely new legal window for authors to be relentlessly harassed (as if they were not facing enough problems in court already). And fourth – and most dangerous of all – it raises the distinct likelihood of the regular weaponisation of PILs for the purposes of book-banning, where the lottery of case assignments will entail that in many cases, such PILs may actually succeed.

The Chief Justice’s judgment, therefore, is wrong in law, wrong in the Constitution, and productive of great public mischief. He has simply arrogated to itself a power that it does not have, and shredded a carefully constructed legal framework of safeguards with respect to the banning of books.

It is worth pointing out (and it is not for the first time that I have made this argument on this blog) how we’ve gotten here. It is a three-letter answer, and it is called “PIL.” What began as a loosening only of locus standi requirements for a greater good has now become a free-for-all where concepts such as jurisdiction, maintainability, and the separation of powers have been so thoroughly discredited, that they now don’t even feature on the radar when it comes to arguments and judgments. The upshot of this is that these concepts, long demonised by proponents of PIL as remnants of “Anglo-Saxon (!) jurisprudence”, but which stood between fundamental rights and judicial autocracy, have been washed away. And the result is plain for all to see: PILs are now at the forefront of lopping off fundamental rights.

It is also worthwhile to note that the road the Chief Justice was going down was more than evident the day that this case was hurriedly listed out of turn, and the day when his bench began hearing it on merits. That was the time for people to question how it was that the Court was doing what it was doing. How was this PIL maintainable? How did the Court have jurisdiction in an Article 32 petition asking for a book to be banned? What “appropriate writ” could it possibly issue? Instead, there was absolute silence. And that is perhaps the most profoundly depressing aspect of the situation that we find ourselves in today: the sinking feeling that the ship has sailed so far that there is no point to even raising these questions anymore. It is no more than a cry in the wilderness.