New Delhi: In 2019, a young technocrat in Faridabad used the terms “straight shooter” and “boss to boss” in a WhatsApp message to his uncle. And ended up in jail on charges of threatening the latter. Now, three years later, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has clarified that these “slang language” terms are not “threatening”.
Embroiled in a property dispute with his uncle, it took the man three years to prove that the words used in the message were misunderstood and the idioms don’t refer to any violent activity or mean to “shoot with a firearm”, but describe a “straight forward and a forthright person”.
Accepting his contention, the Punjab and Haryana HC Monday quashed the FIR registered against him in March 2019.
“The use of the slang is fairly common amongst the younger generation, which is adept at messaging. It can be misunderstood if taken literally,” a single-judge bench of Justice Anupinder Singh Grewal observed.
However, the court added, even if a phrase or an idiom is capable of two interpretations, then the one favourable to the accused would be acceptable. A narrow and pedantic view of language “may curtail freedom of speech and expression”, which would go against the spirit of democracy, the court said.
At the same time, the bench lamented the “extinction” of the art of “letter writing” with proper sentences, punctuated with proper grammar.
Even on merits, the court didn’t concede the prosecution’s explanation that the petitioner had through the message intended to put in his uncle fear of grievous hurt or death to deliver property.
“To put the petitioner on trial would be unjust. Facing the rigour of criminal charges and to undergo trial would not only cause harm to the reputation but would also put him to immense hardship,” the court observed.
An accused should be made to face trial to prove his innocence only when a prima facie case is apparent. But to hold so in this particular case would cause grave injustice to the petitioner, it added.
What the case was
A case was registered against the petitioner in March 2019 when his uncle went to the police with a WhatsApp message sent by the former, alleging that the former had threatened him.
The offending message stated: “62/B-II Mohan corporate indl estate + 50 crs for me and my dad….Boss to Boss Straight shooter.”
The uncle lodged a complaint with the police commissioner, Faridabad, on whose direction registration of the FIR and petitioner’s arrest happened on the same day. The man was later granted regular bail by the trial court and the Haryana Police filed their chargesheet in the case in June 2019.
Before the HC, the petitioner argued that the WhatsApp message was only in furtherance to the talks of settlement. The property and the money mentioned in the message was commensurate with the share of the petitioner’s father in the company.
While “straight shooter” is an “honest and straight forward person”, the term “Boss to Boss” means to sit face to face to solve a dispute, he explained.
However, the prosecution alleged the petitioner’s uncle had received threats in the past as well and that the message was an attempt on the petitioner’s part to extort money by putting him in fear of grievous injury and death.
What the court said
Justice Grewal drew references from Oxford English dictionary and reputable publications including the Harvard Business Review to paraphrase the alleged “threatening” idioms.
“Often these messages may appear to be cryptic but the point is driven home,” the judge said. Furthermore, in view of the factual background, it is plausible that the message is “part of the progress of negotiation between the families”, he added.
As for the charges of putting fear in his uncle’s mind, the court concluded there was no evidence in the case to show that the petitioner tried to extort money by any other unlawful means.
“It is noteworthy that the police have been overzealous in registering the FIR,” the judge added, after he noticed the swift police action in the case. He observed that the petitioner was arrested on the same day when the complaint was made, even though, according to a 2014 Supreme Court judgement, it is not mandatory to arrest the accused in such cases.