On October 27, 2020, Justice Ravindra Maithani of the Uttarakhand High Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to lodge an FIR and investigate all corruption allegations against Uttarakhand’s sitting chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat by a journalist Umesh Sharma. The order was passed in the case, Umesh Kumar Sharma Vs State of Uttarakhand and another (W.P Crl. 1182 of 2020).
The Court also allowed the plea filed by journalist, Umesh Sharma who owns local News Channel ‘Samachar Plus’ to quash an FIR filed against him in July 2020 for publishing a video levelling corruption allegation against the Chief Minister. This video was related to Trivendra Singh Rawat’s alleged role of getting money transferred to accounts of his relatives in the year 2016 (as BJP’s Jharkhand in-charge) to back the appointment of a person (AS Chauhan) in Jharkhand to head the Gau Seva Ayog.
Senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Shyam Diwan assisted by Arunav Chaudhary, Ankur Chawla and Aditya Singh represented the petitioner. Senior advocate, P.S. Pattwalia assisted by Ruchira Gupta, Deputy advocate general and J.S. Virk, deputy advocate general appeared for the State. Mr. Ramji Srivastava and Mr. Navneet Kaushik represented Respondent no. 2- Harender Singh Rawat.
The Petitioner was charged under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code in the FIR No. 100 of 2018 by the State of Uttarakhand on the grounds that he indulged in the activities with intend to create turmoil in the State of Uttarakhand through a sustained and dishonest complaint against the Government of Uttarakhand. In the language of the FIR No. 100 of 2018 there is repeated mentioned of the “action of the petitioner to destabilize the State Government to create violence, disturbance etc.”
Section 124A of the IPC lays down the meaning of sedition. It provides that, “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
Court’s analysis of Section 124A
The Single Judge asked the State’s counsel to explain the reason behind charging the petitioner with sedition to which the State replied that it was a “matter for investigation.” The Court questioned that “Even if it is alleged that the Chief Minister has taken bribe, how is Section 124-A IPC attracted?” The Court referred to the case of Kedar Nath Singh Vs. State of Bihar, AIR 1962 SC 955, where the 5 Judge Bench of the Supreme Court observed that “The provision of the sections read as a whole along with explanations, make it reasonably clear that the sections aims at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence. As already pointed out, the explanations appended to the main body of section, makes it clear that criticism of public measures or comment on government action, however strongly worded would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.”
The Single Bench also added that the principle laid down in the Kedar Nath says that unless, the activities tends to create disorder or disturbance of public peace or by resort to violence, it is not an offence. “Levelling false allegations against a person can never be sedition, unless, it qualifies the test laid down in the case of Kedar Nath Singh”, it said
It went on to further emphasise that “if allegations are levelled against the representatives, it alone cannot be sedition. Criticizing the government can never be sedition. Unless the public functionaries are criticized, democracy cannot be strengthened. In democracy dissent is always respected and considered, if it is suppressed under sedition laws perhaps, it would be an attempt to make the democracy weak.
The Court further made a strong statement by saying, “Adding Section 124-A IPC in the instant case manifests that it has been an attempt of the State, to muzzle the voice of criticism, to muffle complaint/ dissent. It can never be allowed. The law does not permit it. In the instant case, whatever the allegations against the petitioner, they do not remotely connect with Section 124-A IPC. An offence under Section 124-A IPC is not, prima-facie, made out. Why this section is added, it’s beyond comprehension. Whatever is stated on behalf of the State, on this aspect, has no merit at all.”
While granting interim bail to Umesh Sharma in September 2020, the court had expressed its anguished over invoking section 124A of the IPC alleging a conspiracy to disrupt public peace by the journalist petitioner. It remarked, “What troubles more is as to how Section 124-A IPC is added? Even if for the sake of arguments, it is admitted that some allegations were levelled against some high functionary, does it per se amount to sedition, which is punishable under Section 124-A IPC? Why was the State in such haste? Is it a cruel hand of the State, which is running over? Many questions would perhaps also require an answer in this bail.”
The Petitioner (Umesh) had claimed that after demonetization, money was deposited in the accounts of the Doctor Harendar Singh Rawat and his wife Savita Rawat, which was meant as a bribe for Trivendra Singh Rawat. In the video, the Petitioner also claimed that Savita Rawat is the real elder sister of the wife of Trivendra Singh and that he realized bribe money through deposits made in the bank accounts of the Harendar Singh and wife.
Pursuant to this, Dr. Harender Singh Rawat lodged an FIR against Umesh Sharma for cheating, forgery, and other related offences. To this the court responded by saying that, “at this stage, in the instant proceeding, a deeper analysis of any material is not to be made. What is being argued is that no prima-facie case is made out against the petitioner”. Subsequently the FIR against Umesh was quashed.
The order can be read here: