Chandigarh, June 3, 2022: While considering a quashing plea with respect to an FIR registered under Section 295-A IPC against Raveena Tandon, Bharti Singh, Farah Khan and others associated with a Flipkart Originals web show called “Back Benchers”, for allegedly hurting the religious sentiments of the Christian Community by using the word “Hallelujah” in a vulgar sense, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has directed the State to not take any “coercive steps” until December 5, 2022.
The Bench of Justice Karamjit Singh was dealing with the instant plea under Section 482 of the Cr.P.C. seeking quashing of the aforesaid FIR and other consequential proceedings initiated as a result of such lodging of this FIR. The entire matter which resulted in the lodging of as many as thirteen FIRs against the present petitioners in various parts of the country stemmed from the 14th episode of ‘Back Benchers’, a web show run on ‘Flipkart Video Originals’, released on November 30, 2019. The format of the show is such that it’s a non-scripted non-fiction comedy based web quiz show hosted by Bollywood director Farah Khan (second petitioner). In the past, the show has invited many Bollywood and Sports personalities.
In the 14th episode, Bollywood Celebrities namely Raveena Tandon ( first petitioner) and Bharti Singh (third petitioner) were invited as guests while the show was being hosted by the second petitioner, Farah Khan.
As part of the episode, the host ( Farah Khan) asked Raveena Tandon and Bharti Singh to spell the word “Hallelujah” and also to disclose its meaning by narrating the same. The first petitioner (Raveena Tandon) spelt the word “Hallelujah” correctly but other than that she wasn’t able to explain its meaning or narrate it. On the other hand, the third petitioner, Bharti Singh wasn’t able to spell the word “Hallelujah”, so she misspelt it by writing the “Hele luya” instead.
This event resulted in the lodging of an FIR for the commission of offences punishable under Section 295-A IPC, against the above-mentioned three petitioners along with the screenplay writer and the production house of the show, at a Police Station in Batala District, Punjab. The said FIR was registered at the instance of the second and the respondents (at the behest of the Christian Community) alleging that the petitioners hurt the religious sentiments of the Christian Community by disrespecting the word ‘Hallelujah’ and also further comparing it with a vulgar word. Hence, this petition.
The case as advanced by the Counsels for the petitioners was that the allegations made in the impugned FIR did not prima facie constitute any offence and that the same was based on wrongful assumption and surmise given by the Complainant (leader of the Christian Community) who was motivated to gain political mileage. It was argued that the allegations in the FIR were vague and general in nature lodged with the ulterior motive to fasten the criminal liability on the petitioners.
The petitioners’ statements could not be perceived to be disrespectful or hurtful to the sentiments of the Christian brothers or did not remotely qualify to constitute the offence under Section 295-A IPC, the Counsels contended while submitting that for an action to constitute an offence punishable under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code it is sine qua non that action must be an aggravated form of insult which has been perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of a class.
Hence, the Counsels added that the factum of intent which is required to constitute an offence under section 295A, was conspicuously absent in the present case, even if the allegations in the FIR were taken on the face of it. The quashing petition was filed before the Punjab & Haryana High Court through advocates Abhinav Sood, Gaurav Girish Shukla, Anmol Gupta and Dhruv Chowfla under section 482 of the Code Of Criminal Procedure.
With respect to the role of the first petitioner, the Counsel added that apart from spelling the word “Hallelujah” being a participant in the show, Raveena Tandon did not make even a single utterance about it. The same was argued regarding the role of the second petitioner- Farah Khan. Now, regarding the role of Bharti Singh, it was submitted by the Counsels that she was trying to spell the word “Hallelujah” and because of her profession being a standup comedian, the words unintentionally uttered by her were now being used to rope her in the case. Lastly, it was argued that successive FIRs founded on the same cause of action were not maintainable.
After considering the above-stated case, the Court issued a notice of motion for December 5, 2022 and Jaspreet Kaur, AAG, Punjab accepted the notice on behalf of the State (first respondent). The counsel for the petitioners was directed to supply a complete set of the paper books to the State counsel. Justice Singh also directed that no coercive steps should be taken against the petitioners.