'Tandav' row: Supreme Court says freedom of speech 'not absolute'

Shalini Ojha
·3-min read

27 Jan 2021: 'Tandav' row: Supreme Court says freedom of speech 'not absolute'

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said that freedom of speech is not absolute while hearing petitions seeking a stay on cases filed against the makers of web series Tandav, which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

A bench, headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan and also including R Subhash Reddy and MR Shah, suggested the petitioners approach High Courts.

Here are more details.

Background: Context: 'Tandav' was accused of hurting sentiments, FIRs were filed

The nine-episode political thriller, starring Bollywood stars Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Sunil Grover, Zeeshan Ayyub, among others, was accused of hurting religious sentiments by mocking Hindu gods.

FIRs were filed in as many as six states against the team.

After the controversy erupted, director Ali Abbas Zafar issued an apology, saying hurting sentiments was never his intention. At least two edits were also made.

Representatives: Mukul Rohatgi appeared for Amazon India official

In the top court, senior advocates Fali Nariman and Mukul Rohatgi appeared for Amazon India Creative Head Aparna Purohit; senior advocate Sidharth Luthra argued for Zafar, producer Himanshu Mehra, and writer Gaurav Solanki; and senior lawyer Siddharth Agarwal represented Ayyub.

The court issued notices on pleas seeking clubbing of cases and also refused to quash the numerous FIRs registered in several states.

Order: We are not inclined to grant interim protection: SC

The bench refused to grant the accused interim protection from arrest. However, it added petitioners still have the right to approach High Courts.

"We cannot use the power under Section 482 CrPC. We are not inclined to grant interim protection," the bench said.

When Fariman urged the SC to bar coercive action for at least one week, the bench replied that "it wasn't inclined."

Examples: Lawyers highlighted the verdict passed in Arnab Goswami's case

During the hearing, Nariman, Rohatgi, and Luthra drew attention to the verdict passed by the SC in April 2020 concerning journalist Arnab Goswami.

Named in multiple FIRs across states for using derogatory language for Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Goswami approached the top court.

At the time, a bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah had provided him protection from arrest for three weeks.

Argument: 'If people are so sensitive, art will be destroyed'

Arguing that people are offended by anything, Nariman said the petitioners stay in Mumbai and will be forced to visit different states. "In Arnab Goswami, your Lordships stated that violation of 19(1)(a) could allow us to approach SC," he said, making a case for clubbing FIRs.

Rohatgi said, "If people are so sensitive in everything, then art, cinema, TV, all will be destroyed."

Fact: Rohatgi pointed out a new FIR is filed daily

"This is a genuine innocent case. We have done no wrong. Every day there is a new FIR. Where will a man go? Can he go to every state and argue? Your lordships may at least club the FIRs," Rohatgi pleaded.

Details: Approach HCs if you want FIRs to be quashed: Bench

When Nariman mentioned the numerous FIRs, Justice Bhushan remarked, "You want the FIRs to be quashed, then why can't you approach the High Courts?"

Separately, when Luthra said the director is being harassed and asked if liberty can be protected by firing multiple FIRs, the bench made oral observations that freedom of speech isn't absolute.

The SC also wondered why petitioners invoked Article 32.

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