The Supreme court on Tuesday granted interim protection to former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma. The court directed that no coercive steps be taken against her in the multiple FIRs registered in different states, over her remarks on Prophet Mohammed during a TV debate. The court also said that the same protection will be available for any FIRs registered in the future in respect to the same telecast. The top court essentially granted her the same protection which she was seeking earlier.
The same bench of Justices Surya Kant and Pardiwala had previously refused to entertain the petition filed by Sharma and passed strong remarks against her. The Court previously said that “her loose tongue has set the country on fire” and “Sharma was singlehandedly responsible for what is happening in the country“. The comments came after that Udaipur incident, wherein one Kanhaiya Lal was killed, implying that Sharma was responsible for the same. Sharma approached the top court for clubbing of multiple FIRs filed against her relying on top court’s judgment in TT Anthony v. State of Kerala (TT Anthony) and Arnab Goswami v. State of Maharashtra (2020).
Senior Advocate Maninder Singh appearing for Sharma submitted that after the Court’s order on July 1, the petitioner has received genuine threat to her life and due to those threats it is not possible for the petitioner to avail alternate remedies as pointed out by the Bench in the July 1 order. Singh also pointed out that only one FIR can be registered following the guidelines issued in the case of TT Antony.
The petitioner pointed out the there are certain incidents which caused a threat to her life and liberty as guaranteed by Article 21 and therefore, it is pertinent for the court to club and transfer all the FIRs to Delhi (as was suggested first by Justice Kant and accepted by Sharma’s counsel). The Bench considered the submissions and observed that the main concern of the court right now is to protect her life and liberty as guaranteed under Article 21, so as to allow her to avail alternate remedies under law (this was with regard to quashing of FIRs filed against her before the High Court under Section 482 of the Criminal Procedure Code). The court ordered that no action be taken against Sharma in respect to the present FIRs and/or the future FIRs filed against her for the same telecast on 26.5.2022.
Multiple FIRs violates the fundamental right to free and fair trial as it leads to multiple trials and proceedings before different courts, which may produce different results for the accused. The harassment suffered by the accused during these multiple proceedings is a punishment in itself and the Chief Justice NV Ramana pointed out, the process of criminal justice must not become a punishment.
What are the TT Anthony guidelines?
In the case of TT Antony , the Supreme court issued guidelines with regard to multiple FIRs being registered with respect to the same facts and circumstances. The apex court held that “there can be no fresh investigation on receipt of every subsequent information in respect of the same cognizable offence or the same occurrence or incident giving rise to one or more cognizable offences.“
The Court said that registration of multiple FIRs against a person warrants the court to strike a balance between the fundamental rights of the accused and powers of police officers to investigate a cognisable offence.
The Court, therefore, held that,
“However, the sweeping power of investigation does not warrant subjecting a citizen each time to fresh investigation by the police in respect of the same incident, giving rise to one or more cognizable offences, consequent upon filing of successive FIRs whether before or after filing the final report under Section 173(2) Cr.P.C. It would clearly be beyond the purview of Sections 154 and 156 Cr.P.C. nay, a case of abuse of the statutory power of investigation in a given case. In our view a case of fresh investigation based on the second or successive FIRs, not being a counter case, filed in connection with the same or connected cognizable offence alleged to have been committed in the course of the same transaction and in respect of which pursuant to the first FIR either investigation is underway or final report under Section 173(2) has been forwarded to the Magistrate, may be a fit case for exercise of power under Section 482 Cr.P.C. or under Article 226/227 of the Constitution.“ [emphasis supplied by the authors]
The guidelines issued in the case of TT Anthony were followed recently in the Arnab Goswami and Amish Devgn. In both the cases, the apex court granted relief to the accused persons against the multiple FIRs filed against them.
Multiple FIRs make the accused run from pillar to post denying her the most precious fundamental right of liberty. For example, if there are multiple FIRs against the accused, one in Delhi and another one in Uttar Pradesh. If an accused gets bail in Delhi Court against the FIR registered in Delhi, still the accused will not be at liberty because there is another FIR in Uttar Pradesh. Hence, the grant of bail becomes ‘inoperable/nugatory’ in practicality. Therefore, the Courts (Supreme Court & High Courts) must be conscious of the facts before them and fundamental rights of the person must always be balanced with the wide powers under criminal law of investigation, arrests etc.
Justice Chandrachud in his judgment in Arnab held that, “Courts should be alive to both ends of the spectrum – the need to ensure the proper enforcement of criminal law on the one hand and the need, on the other, of ensuring that the law does not become a ruse for targeted harassment.”
Similarly, the apex court was also pleased to grant protection to the news anchor Amish Devgn and clubbed the multiple FIRs filed against the anchor. The case of Sharma is similar to these line of cases and there are set precedents before the apex court to grant the relief. Today’s order must be commended as the Supreme Court instead of policing the accused, granted relief which is legally available safeguarding the constitutional principles and values.
On July 20, the Supreme Court will hear the petitions filed by Mohammad Zubair, founder of AltNews, for quashing of the FIRs registered against him by the UP Police. Against Zubair also, multiple FIRs are registered for the tweet he posted four years ago and he has been granted bail by the Delhi Court. But still he is not at liberty due to the multiple FIRs in Uttar Pradesh and subsequent remand orders granted there. It will be the test for the Supreme Court’s bench of Justices Chandrachud, Bopanna and Kant whether they will apply the same principles applied in Sharma, Arnab, Amish and Anthony’s case or not. The time will tell.
This is a post by Dhruv Paniya and Chaitanya Singh. Paniya is a student of law studying in NMIMS and Singh is an advocate based in Delhi.