“Developments around the world… reflect rising concerns across borders… whether the liberal debate which… platforms” like Facebook “profess to encourage has itself become a casualty”, the Supreme Court said Thursday while refusing to quash the summons issued by the Delhi Assembly’s Committee on Peace and Harmony to the social media giant in connection with the 2020 Northeast Delhi communal riots.
It, however, underlined that the Committee “cannot have a misconception that it is some kind of a prosecuting agency which can embark on the path of holding people guilty and direct the filing of supplementary chargesheet against them”.
A bench of Justices S K Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy also asked the Committee not to encroach into subjects reserved for the Centre – police and law and order – and said that in case it does so, the representative of FB can choose not to answer.
“… we do not seek to give an excuse to the representative of the petitioners to not answer questions and frustrate the proceedings before the Committee qua the petitioners. However, at the same time, we give this very limited protection were the Committee to embark on these prohibited areas,” the bench said, rejecting the petition filed by FB and its India Managing Director Ajit Mohan.
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 During the pendency of proceedings in the SC, the two summons were withdrawn and a third one was issued on February 3, 2021, to Facebook alone.
Upholding the summoning power of the Assembly, the SC said, “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. Appropriate recommendations made by the State Government in this regard could be of significance in the collaborative effort between the Centre and the State to deal with governance issues. It is in that context that this Court had recognised that certain local interests are best addressed by the elected representatives of the concerned State”.
It added: “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, 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 SC 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.
The bench said that the petition was premature as only a summons had been issued and that invoking privilege powers would only come at the end of several more measures. These eventualities were yet to rise in the instant case, it said adding “this case is a preventive endeavour by the petitioner to preclude the respondents from even considering the aspect of privilege by seeking this Court’s intervention at a pre-threshold stage, only on the premise of the absence of legislative power”.
“We have no hesitation in stating that the endeavour of the petitioners to sidestep their appearance before the Committee on a perceived notion of not being an official representative is not acceptable to us – whether the exercise is for a legislative enactment, or for other purposes connected with its legislative domain,” the ruling said.
The bench also rejected Facebook’s argument that they were being drawn into a “political divide” between the Centre and the state and 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”.