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Upset over the wrong interpretation of its verdict on criminal defamation, the Supreme Court has clarified that it would have no bearing on the freedom of speech and expression. The top court had earlier upheld laws that make criminal defamation an offense under IPC.

The court’s observation came while it was hearing defamation proceedings by the RSS against Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi over his remarks on Mahatma Gandhi.

The Supreme Court’s verdict striking down a challenge to criminal defamation laws was delivered in May this year. A clutch of petitions, which had Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy as parties, had pleaded that Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC related to criminal defamation be dispensed with.

According to media reports, Justice Dipak Misra, who had written the judgment in that case, said that people should read and understand the defamation judgment before criticizing it. He clarified that “any criticism of someone does not make the speech a ground for launching criminal defamation proceedings under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code”.

However, defamation is a grave offence and a crime against society as it can severely harm the reputation of a person. In the earlier judgment, the court had pointed out that while we have the right to free speech we also have a human and fundamental right to protect our reputation.

Of late, there have been many instances in Indian polity of defamation being used as a weapon of attack against political opponents.

In the current case of defamation charges against Rahul Gandhi for saying that RSS people killed Mahatma Gandhi, his counsel argued that Rahul’s statement was based on government records and on the Punjab and Haryana High Court’s decision regarding Nathuram Godse’s association with the RSS.

According to media reports, the Supreme Court pointed out that the judgment only said that Godse was an RSS worker. It said that to say Godse killed Gandhi was one thing, but to say that RSS killed him was another.

The Supreme Court told Rahul Gandhi that he must either apologise or face trial to prove that his statement was made in public good. The statement has to pass the test of public good through examination of evidence in a trial, the court said. The case has been adjourned to July 27.

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