Monday, October 2, 2023

Celebrity Crush

In an incident which once again puts a question mark on airlines’ operations and passenger well being, well-known actress and BJP MP Hema Malini was allegedly put into a very uncomfortable position by unruly co-passengers. The incident has also raised questions about the right to privacy

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By Sanjay Raman Sinha

In a case of blatant indecency and violation of privacy, Qatar Airways passengers reportedly misbehaved with Hema Malini. The incident took place when she was travelling on the flight from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, Mumbai to Hamad International Airport, Doha. A source close to Malini told India Legal that the passengers were repeatedly trying to take a picture of the actor-turned-MP with flash when she was sleeping. Her clothes were in disarray and despite her pleas and admonitions, they went on shooting photos. 

Kaushal Kishore, Union Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs, while speaking to APN News, a sister concern of India legal, said: “This incident that took place with Ms Hema Malini is very shameful and all those who are involved in this incident will be punished and action will be taken against them as soon as possible and even an FIR will be filed against them. Hema Malini is a well-known person and she is very popular all over the world. It is the responsibility of the superior authorities to take action regarding this incident that has happened with her. The people who are involved in this must be punished by the authorities.”

The appalling incident occurred at around 2 am on September 6. When the MP complained to the crew, they didn’t take heed. Till the time of writing this report, there was no response from Qatar Airways after complaints were lodged. Malini was travelling on the Business Class of Qatar Airways. A source told India Legal that she was assigned a seat in the Business Class near the general seating arrangements. When she expressed discomfort and requested a seat change, it was not accepted. Malini’s assistants have reportedly expressed displeasure over the rude behaviour of the fellow passengers in the Qatar Airways flight and the delay in taking action despite the complaint.

In the complaint, the MP has sought action against the negligent crew members and demanded the Airways to ascertain that such a situation does not take place during her return flight. Malini’s close aides held that the Qatar Airways customer service team had merely sent an automated acknowledgement. India Legal sent a questionnaire to Qatar Airways’ Corporate Communications department to seek reply, but the mail was returned back by an automated response system.

Pavan Duggal, IT expert and lawyer, while speaking to India Legal said: “If pictures have been taken in such a way that they are obscene in themselves, then online obscenity charges can also be clamped under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act. Along with this, some provisions of the Indian Penal Code can also be imposed.”

The incident has raised questions about the right to privacy of Malini. Right to privacy is considered a fundamental right. The right flows from Article 21 of the Constitution which states that every person—citizens and non-citizens—has the right to live and the right to have personal liberty.

In Justice KS Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that right to privacy is a fundamental right. The top court gave the landmark verdict during the hearing of a petition that challenged the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar-based biometric system.

Sanjay Bansal, advocate at the Supreme Court told India Legal: “What I personally think this is a case of deficiency of service and definitely a matter of invasion of personal space of a passenger. Obviously taking pictures without her consent and in a condition in which she is ill placed is inappropriate and also a matter of morality. The privacy of a lady passenger, or for that matter, any passenger, should be respected. The airline and crew should be very sensitive in such matters.”

According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), there are three types of illegal or uncontrolled behaviour. Level one, where the passenger breaks the rules verbally. In this case, there is a ban of up to three months. Level two involves physically breaking the rules. For this, a ban of up to six months can be imposed. After this comes Level three, where the behaviour of the passenger is life-threatening. There is a ban of at least two years in this case. If a passenger’s behaviour poses a threat to national security, more stringent action may be taken.

Captain SS Panesar, former director, flight safety and training, Indian Airlines, told India Legal: “The air hostess or other crew members make announcements to the passengers who are travelling by the airways that they need to keep their mobile phones switched off and they are not allowed to click the photographs. Actually I don’t know what kind of rules and regulations are there in the UAE. But, I know about India, and here, we cannot click photographs while we are travelling by airways. A person is not allowed to click photographs without the permission of the other person.” The DGCA had last year announced that breaking rules or obstructing work on board an aircraft is a punishable offence. Because of one such passenger, the safety of the aircraft may be at risk.  

The central government had issued guidelines in 2017 to prevent misbehaviour of passengers during flights. According to the guidelines, if an air passenger misbehaves in the plane, the pilot has to file a report. After this, there is an internal investigation into the matter. The airline has the right to put a misbehaving passenger on the no-fly list for 30 days. If the airline is not able to take a decision on the matter within the stipulated time, the accused passenger can travel by flight again.

The DGCA regulates civil aviation in India. Under Provisions 22, 23 and 29 of the Indian Aircraft Rules, 1937, the DGCA can prevent passengers from travelling by air who create ruckus, drink excessively or are verbally abusive. The passenger can even be taken off the plane if needed. According to Provision 23, if a passenger, under the influence of alcohol or any other intoxication, endangers the safety of the aircraft or any person, he can be deboarded from the aircraft. These rules apply equally to international flights coming to India. However, if the incident occurs abroad and the airline is also from abroad, then these rules do not apply.

Complaints about misbehaviour in flights have to be made to the chief pilot. The complaint has to be lodged with the airline authorities as well. After this, an internal inquiry committee decides the category of misbehaviour of the passenger within 10 days. During the period of investigation, the accused passenger may be banned from air travel. At the same time, if found guilty during investigation, the airline puts the passenger on the no-fly list. Being put on no-fly list means that the guilty passenger cannot travel on any flight of that airline. In some cases, the Ministry of Civil Aviation can also investigate the complaint. The DGCA, which works under the Ministry, can also seek answers from the airlines, if the need arises.

If a passenger feels that he/she has been put in the no-fly list unnecessarily or wrongly, he/she has the right to apply to the Appellate Committee under the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Whatever decision is taken after the matter goes to the committee, the passenger will have to accept it. However, if the ban has been imposed by the Home Ministry, he/she has no right to apply.

In cases like assault or urinating on a co-passenger or crew member, a case can be registered under Section 23 of the Indian Aircraft Act as well as under various IPC sections. Obscene acts in a public place, singing obscene songs, verbal molestation of women are crimes under Section 294 of the IPC. There is a provision of punishment and fine of three months in this crime. There may be a punishment of 24 hours and a fine as well.

An airplane is considered a public place. Under Section 354 of the IPC, any criminal act or assault or sexual harassment that outrages the modesty of a woman can result in a punishment of at least one year and a fine. Violating the privacy of a co-passenger is a crime under Section 509 of the IPC and the culprit can be punished with imprisonment up to three years. Causing trouble to other people due to a drunk passenger is a crime under Section 510 of the IPC. There may be a punishment of 24 hours and a fine.

If the incident of misbehaviour has happened at the airport, the concerned police station or the security agency present at the airport can take action. At the same time, the DGCA will take action if there is misbehaviour in the aircraft parked at the airport. If a passenger misbehaves when the plane reaches the airspace of another country, there is a provision for action against him based on the law of that country. If the flight is beyond 12 nautical miles in international space, action can be taken under the rules of many countries.

Of late, harassment during air travel has increased. With the social media fever on the rise, people are mobile happy and click photos with impunity. When a celebrity is in near proximity, clicking selfies and photos becomes an unchecked rage. Till now, it was the paparazzi which was the nemesis of celebrities, now the hoi polloi is asking for their pound of flesh.

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