In a country which promises freedom of expression as a fundamental right, the term defamation should be considered anathema. But we are an archaic society with an equally stifling set of laws that were propounded by the British Raj in 1860 to serve the purpose of white supremacy over dark. This time around, the maverick BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which deal with defamation.
If we tend to look into the definition of defamation it suggests invariably that if anyone’s reputation is harmed by making a false and derogatory statement without any lawful justification, the person who has made the statements can be imprisoned for a maximum of two years, if found guilty. When we have no qualms in proclaiming ourselves as one of the superpowers of the world, why do we not have the strength and the will power to completely negate a 154-year-old law that curbs free speech and makes it impossible for people and publications to stop themselves from publishing/ speaking something which may offend the other person? Rule of the land is something else and blatant criminal intimidation is another. Even the United Kingdom, which ruled us for more than 200 years, did away with criminal defamation in 2013 by passing a defamation act. The new law there now requires claimants to show actual or probable serious harm before suing.
But Indian politicians being Indian politicians make it a point that their country is still looked down upon or how else will their purported interests get fulfilled? Case in point is of Tamil Nadu and its array of some seriously volatile politicians. Subramanian Swamy may have filed the petition in the apex court but his interests are at best vested too. An already depleted former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, who is under house arrest in a disproportionate assets case, will now also have to face the SC ire for filing a defamation suite against Swamy and a newspaper on the issue of the Sri Lankan navy apprehended boats belonging to her.
A country which wants to thrive itself on the path of development and which also wants to identify its deeds as equivalent to the modern society, there is no place for defamation. Putting any publication in the dock is very easy but do the offended souls ever discern that how difficult it is for the former to keep their record slates clean? For a newspaper which sells more than a million copies a day it may still be business as usual but what about the hundreds of others who are fighting a battle of sustenance? Will India’s paramount authority on judicial matters let them slip into the oblivion or will it decriminalise defamation? We need to wait and watch.