On 5 September, a petition filed by the Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, questioning India’s criminal defamation law, came up for hearing in the Supreme Court. A bench presided by Justice JS Khehar agreed to hear her case, but limited the frame of the inquiry to one critical question: should corporations be allowed—as they currently are—to invoke the criminal defamation provision under the Indian Penal Code? In her petition, Pillai argued that they should not.
Pillai’s petition was originally part of a batch of cases, now known by its lead petition, Subramanian Swamy v Union of India. In these cases, a broader challenge was made to those provisions of the Indian Penal Code that collectively criminalise defamation. In May, the Supreme Court ruled against the petitioners, who included activists and politicians. It found that the defamation law was a reasonable restriction on freedom of expression. As a result of the judgment, it remains possible for the state to jail anyone found guilty of saying or writing anything that is likely to damage another’s reputation. According to the court, there was no reason why civil damages alone ought to be considered sufficient compensation for injuries suffered from defamatory speech.
Although, at the time it was delivered, Justice Dipak Misra’s opinion was criticised, not least for its garrulous prose and rickety reasoning, it was believed the verdict would settle the matter once and for all. But Pillai’s petition, which also challenged the validity of the criminal defamation law, was left undecided after Justice Misra recused himself from hearing it. It had to then be untagged from the group for separate disposal, leading to the 5 September hearing at which the court framed the particular question concerning corporate defamation.