New Delhi, July 8, 2021: The Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a petition filed by Facebook India vice president Ajit Mohan challenging the summons issued to the company by the Peace and Harmony Committee of the Delhi Legislative Assembly in connection with last year’s communal riots in the national capital.
A three-judge bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said the Committee was well within its power to issue summons for appearance to Facebook, but it certainly did not have the legislative mandate to recommend action in case of persons against whom a prima facie case is made out. Such a term of reference would fall within the domain of law and order and the police, which are subjects on which the Delhi Assembly cannot legislate.
The bench, also comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy, said in case the legislative assembly encroaches upon the domain of the Central government, the representative of Facebook can choose not to answer questions and for this the Committee cannot proceed against him for breach of privilege of the House.
Rejecting Facebook’s argument that the social media company was being drawn into a “political divide” between the Centre and the state, the apex court said, “Facebook is a platform where such political differences are reflected. They cannot wash their hands off the issue as this is their very business… their role is not as innocuous as they are seeking to contend”.
“Social media platforms have the power and potential to influence people across the border. Debates on these platforms, like Facebook, have the potential to polarise the society and less informed individuals may not verify the information and take it as gospel of truth,” the top court said in its 188-page verdict.
The petitioners had approached the court against two summons issued to Mohan on September 10 and 18, 2020, seeking his presence in the context of complaints that the platform had failed to remove hate speech material. During the pendency of proceedings in the SC, the two summons were withdrawn and a third one was issued on February 3, 2021, to Facebook alone.
The apex court observed: “The unfortunate communal riots between 24th and 29 February, 2020, in various parts of Delhi, led to the death of 53 persons, caused significant damage to public and private property, disruptions to schools, transport, water supply, medical and other civic amenities. The complexity of communal tensions and their wide-ranging ramifications is a matter affecting citizens of Delhi and it cannot be said that the Government of NCT of Delhi cannot look into the causal factors in order to formulate appropriate remedial measures”.
“We are of the view that because of the pervasive impact of the riots, the Committee could legitimately attend to such grievances encompassing varied elements of public life. Thus, it would be entitled to receive information and deliberate on the same to examine their bearing on peace and harmony without transgressing into any fields reserved for the Union Government in the Seventh Schedule,” it said.
It, however, said that recommending action against such persons against whom incriminating evidence is found or prima facie case is made out for incitement of violence “cannot be part of the remit of the Committee” as “this is an aspect purely governed by policing. It is the function of the police to locate the wrong doer by investigation and charge them before a competent court…”
The apex court also took serious exception to statements by Committee Chairman Raghav Chadha during a press conference on August 31, 2020.
It said that “the statements… cannot be diluted or brushed aside… No doubt some part of the press conference refers to the complaints received and statements made by persons deposing before the Committee. But, at the same time, it was stated by the Chairman that the material placed before the Committee had resulted in a ‘preliminary conclusion’. Thereafter, it was stated that ‘prima facie it seems that Facebook has colluded with vested interests during Delhi riots’. It does not rest at this and he further states: ‘Facebook should be treated as a co-accused and investigated as a co-accused in Delhi riots investigation.’ and ‘As the issue of Delhi riots is still going in the court, a supplementary chargesheet should be filled (sic) considering Facebook as a co-accused.”‘
Conveying its displeasure, the court said, “The… statements and conclusions are completely outside the remit of the Committee and should not have been made. That it may give rise to apprehension in the minds of the petitioners can also not be doubted.”
The bench said while the proceedings before such committees cannot be equated to those before a court of law and “no House can be a knight in shining armour to correct issues in respect of which it has no legislative power… yet, it would be a monumental tragedy to conclude that the legislature is restricted to the function of enacting laws”.
“The role of the legislature”, it said “is sought to be diminished by such an argument” and added that “the legislature debates many aspects, and at times records a sense of the House”.
Stating that even a non-member can be summoned by an Assembly Committee, the court also upheld the power to act in case of breach of legislative privilege.
“The petitioners, more so with their expanded role as an intermediary, can hardly contend that they have some exceptional privilege to abstain from appearing before a committee duly constituted by the Assembly”, the judgment said.
Communal riots had broken out in northeast Delhi in February 2020 after clashes between those in favour of and against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act of CAA went out of control, resulting in the killing of around 50 people.