Azam Khan’s remarks on a gangrape that made Supreme Court review politicians’ freedom of speech
Additional restrictions cannot be imposed on the right to free speech of ministers, MPs and MLAs, said the Supreme Court Constitution Bench on Tuesday. The court said the existing grounds to restrict free speech are exhaustive.
By a 4:1 majority, the judges said that statements made by ministers, MPs and MLAs, even if traceable to the government, cannot be vicariously attributed to the government.
Let’s see how the court came to review whether additional restrictions were needed to be imposed on the right to free speech of ministers, MPs and MLAs. It all began with a gang rape case.
THE GANG RAPE
On the night of July 2016, a group of highway robbers stopped the car of a Noida-based family and sexually assaulted a woman and her daughter after dragging them out of the vehicle at gunpoint in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr. Then the Samajwadi Party led by Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was in power in the state.
AZAM KHAN’S REMARK
Senior party leader and Cabinet minister Azam Khan called the incident nothing but a political conspiracy against the Uttar Pradesh government.
In December of that year, Azam Khan, told by the top court, apologised, but the judges observed that the apology did not appear to be unconditional because he had used words like "if" and "then". Azam Khan, represented by Kapil Sibal, tendered an SC unconditional apology and expressed his sincere remorse.
THE LARGER QUESTION
However, the court said that the questions regarding the freedom of speech and expression and the probable impact of statements of those holding high offices on a free and fair probe in heinous cases including rape and molestation are required to be debated. The hearings continued.
In 2017, the Supreme Court referred to a Constitution Bench questioned, whether a high functionary, such as a Minister of a State, can make comments that potentially create distrust in the minds of the victims of a crime about the fairness of an investigation.
The court was to decide if greater restrictions on the fundamental right to free speech of ministers, MPs/MLAs and persons holding high state offices were needed. The judgement was to decide whether there should be a written code of conduct for legislators.
During the hearing, the constitution bench observed that there is an unwritten rule that people holding public office must impose self-restriction and ensure they do not make disparaging remarks, and this must be inculcated into political and civic life.
The five-judge constitution bench, headed by Justice SA Nazeer, Justices B R Gavai, AS Bopanna, V Ramasubramanian and BV Nagarathna, had reserved its judgment on November 15 this year.
WHERE IS AZAM KHAN?
Azam Khan has been in and out of jail in connection with various cases. Recently, he was disqualified from the state legislative assembly after being convicted in a 2019 hate speech case. The BJP won his bastion, Rampur, in the ensuing bypoll in which Azam Khan’s confidante Asim Raja contested as the Samajwadi Party candidate.