New Delhi, July 8, 2021 –
The Supreme Court on Thursday said the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee can seek information from Facebook and its officials in connection with their alleged role in Delhi riots.
A three-judge bench, headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, said: “We cannot accept the plea that an Assembly must confine itself to the core function of legislation. This would be unreasonably restricting the role of an elected body.”
However, the bench also comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy, clarified that the committee cannot go into issue of law and order and act as some kind of prosecuting agency.
The bench recognised that the “inquisitorial and recommendatory powers” of the committee can be utilised under the principle of better governance. Facebook’s representative would have a right to refuse to answer and this would not invite privilege proceedings, it added.
The bench emphasised that entities like Facebook have to remain accountable to those who entrust them with such power. “We cannot lose sight of the fact that it has simultaneously become a platform for disruptive messages, voices, and ideologies”, added the court, citing that election and voting processes, the very foundation of a democratic government, stand threatened by social media manipulation.
The top court termed as “premature” the apprehension of coercive action made by Facebook and its India Vice President and MD Ajit Mohan Mohan against the backdrop of summonses issued by the committee headed by AAP MLA Raghav Chadha.
“While we respect the right of the Committee to the extent that there exists an obligation on the petitioners to respond to the summonses, we cannot permit the proceedings to go on in a manner that encroaches upon the prohibited entries (public order, police and land).”
The top court upheld the committee’s counsel argument that the police cannot be the sole custodian of peace and harmony and that the expression itself has various connotations.
“Despite the state government being denuded of certain powers, it has to be noted that governance has many manifestations, and functions of the government can be realised in different ways. This is especially true in the present case where the situation was admittedly created through an intrinsically law and order issue,” said the bench.
It added the committee 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 Centre in the Seventh Schedule.
The court also said that the statement: “Facebook should be treated as a co-accused and investigated as a co-accused in Delhi riots investigation” and supplementary charge sheet should be filled considering Facebook as a co-accused, is completely outside the remit of the Committee and should not have been made.
In its 188-page judgement, the bench noted that it was pre-emptory to see a clash of privilege powers and certain fundamental rights free speech, silence, and privacy in the present matter.
The top court brushed aside Facebook’s assertion that it was merely intermediary, and added that India’s “unity in diversity”, cannot be disrupted at any cost or under any professed freedom by a giant like Facebook claiming ignorance or lack of any pivotal role.
The top court made these observations in a judgement where it dismissed the plea of Facebook and Mohan against the summonses issued to him by the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony committee for failing to appear before it as witness in connection with February 2020 Delhi riots. (Agency)