The recent controversy over Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ has brought into focus the criminal libel laws in India which are widely considered as out of sync with international judicial trends.
Doniger, while defending her publisher Penguin’s step of withdrawing the book, has said the real issue was the Indian law, which criminalises libel, instead of treating it as a civil offence as it is in many countries.
The crucial difference between a civil and a criminal offence is that a person tried for a criminal offence can be sentenced to jail, whereas a civil offender can only be asked to pay compensation for loss of reputation.
Legal experts say that more and more countries, to ensure freedom of speech, have repealed laws that make libel a criminal act. But India is one of the few democratic nations that still retain the laws making libel a criminal offence. “If a man’s reputation is damaged, it can be compensated by claiming damages. But if a person can be put in jail for saying anything against another, then there is no meaning for free speech. World over libel is considered only as a civil offence for this reason,” said Justice K Chandru, former judge of Madras High Court.
IPC sections 499 and 500 deal with libel and they say a person convicted of it may be sentenced to a maximum of two years in jail. The UN Human Rights Commission too ruled in 2012 that criminalisation of libel violates freedom of expression and is inconsistent with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
India being a signatory of the conventions, legal experts say that the recent interpretation of the convention holds good in India too. “There is no doubt that there is an urgent need to decriminalise libel in India. Even under the present laws, a person accused of libel cannot be arrested. So we could not accept this as justification for Penguin to agree to the withdrawal of the book,” said Dr V Suresh, national general secretary, People’s Union of Civil Liberties.
However, being a criminal law it is often used to torment a person making statements perceived as unfavourable by a few sections. “This is what happened in the case of actress Kushboo. Just because her remarks were not welcomed, criminal defamation cases were filed and she had to spend so many days just appearing in courts,” said Justice K Chandru.