New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday deferred its verdict on the Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to put up public hoardings identifying people who allegedly participated in protests last December against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Earlier this week, the Allahabad High Court had ordered the state’s Yogi Adityanath administration to remove the hoardings, which bear the addresses and photos of alleged protesters. The state government subsequently moved the Supreme Court, which said Thursday that the case should be handed over to a bench of “sufficient strength” led by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde.
The hearing saw the counsel for the Uttar Pradesh government, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, challenge the high court’s observation that the hoardings violated the Right to Privacy of the people named. Mehta argued that “rioters who wield guns” and commit violence in public do not have the Right to Privacy, but the Supreme Court said the UP government order didn’t appear to be backed by law.
The UP government also said the 9 March HC order, passed after Chief Justice Govind Mathur took suo motu cognisance of the posters, was bad in law.
However, a vacation bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and Aniruddha Bose said the case should be “immediately” placed before a larger bench led by Bobde. The bench didn’t stay the high court order, which means the UP government would still need to take down the hoardings.
‘Not backed by law’
When the CAA was passed in December, a series of protests was reported from around the country. The protests descended into violence in Uttar Pradesh, where 19 people died. A lot of property was reported vandalised as well.
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Then, last Friday, the UP government put up large hoardings across state capital Lucknow that identify over 50 people who allegedly indulged in violence during the protests and ask them to pay compensation for the damaged property. The posters have been widely criticised, with many pointing out that they exposed the people named to self-styled vigilantes.
The high court took note of the hoardings, ordered their removal and summoned the Lucknow District Magistrate and police chief for an explanation. The posters, it said, were a violation of individual privacy, a fundamental right that globally “underpins human dignity and key values of a democracy”.
“This fundamental right provides lungs to the edifice of our entire constitutional system… Slightest injury to it is impermissible as that may be fatal for our values designed and depicted in the Preamble of the Constitution,” it added in its 14-page order.
Mehta sought to counter this argument in court Thursday, saying there could be no Right of Privacy for rioters who wielded guns in public.
“There was an order passed against 57 persons who were held to be responsible and involved in rioting in areas of UP. They don’t belong to any one community but four. There can be no right to privacy for rioters who wield guns in public. They waive that right,” he added.
The “hoardings were not only meant to be a measure for deterrence but to also recover liabilities from the rioters for the damage caused”, Mehta said.
He also cited a UK Supreme Court verdict to convince the bench that there was no infringement of privacy once violence was committed in public, and the apex court noted that his submission was of “persuasive value”.
However, the Supreme Court observed that the UP government’s decision was missing the “backing of law”.
“A person can do anything not prohibited by law, but a state can do only what law permits it to. In this case, is there a law?” Justice Lalit asked.
Justice Bose added, “Power of putting up hoardings? Where is this power of the state coming from?”
To this, Justice Lalit said unruly behaviour could not be allowed but there was no law backing the UP government in this case.
“We agree that there cannot be unruly and disorderly behaviour, but there must be some law that backs the action of putting up the hoardings. There is no backing of law here,” the bench observed.
‘Gross violation of rights’
Although the case was taken up suo motu by the high court, a battery of senior lawyers turned up in the Supreme Court to argue on behalf of the people identified in the posters.
Senior lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for former Inspector General Dara Puri, said such posters were a means to incite the common man.
“Take the case of a child rapist and murder accused. Since when do have a system where we can name and shame them on posters? When that man walks on bail, he may be lynched,” Singhvi said.
“These posters are there to create provocation and create a mob lynch mentality so that people can take law into their own hands,” Singhvi added, saying there was no law backing the hoardings.
Senior lawyer Colin Gonsalves, who appeared for Lucknow-based advocate Mohammad Shoaib, argued that such hoardings were the “most gross violation” of his rights.
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