‘Peace and Harmony Committee can summon FB but not recommend prosecution’: SC
The Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a petition filed by Facebook India vice president Ajit Mohan challenging the summons issued to the company by the Peace and Harmony Committee of the Delhi Legislative Assembly in connection with the Delhi riots in February last year.
A three-judge bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said that the Committee was well within its power to issue summons for appearance to Facebook but it certainly did not have the legislative mandate to recommend action in case of persons against whom a prima facie case is made out. Such a term of reference would fall within the domain of law and order and police, which are subjects on which the Delhi Assembly cannot legislate.
The bench, also comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy, said that it was this term of reference that created a legitimate apprehension in the mind of the petitioner (Mohan) that Facebook is sought to be made an accused. The Court also said that ‘Peace’ and ‘Harmony’ are subjects beyond law and order, yet care must be taken by the Committee in framing the terms of reference so that it does not traverse the excluded territories (law and order, police).
It was on September 23, 2020 when Facebook India vice-president Ajit Mohan filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the September 10 and September 18 notices issued by the Peace and Harmony Committee of the Delhi Assembly seeking his presence before the panel.
The Court had protected Mohan against any coercive action and during the course of arguments wished to know if the Assembly intended the personal appearance of Mohan alone or anybody from the company. Senior advocate Harish Salve, who appeared for Mohan, claimed that as an intermediary for the exchange of information on his platform, he cannot be compelled to come and state on oath before a non-statutory Committee.
For the Assembly, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi had advanced arguments and said that the notice never required Mohan to depose but any senior, responsible person from the company capable of assisting the Committee.
It was pursuant to this, a fresh notice was issued to Facebook India by the Delhi Legislative Assembly in February 2021, this time asking a senior, responsible officer from the company to appear before the Peace and Harmony Committee. This notice was taken on record by the Court.
The case was dealt with on three fronts by the court – the issue of legislative privileges, the question of free speech and expression raised by Mohan, and the legislative competence of the Committee.
The Delhi Assembly had relied on various entries in the state list and concurrent list, by which the Delhi Assembly derived its power to discuss and debate on the issue in question. It cited entry 1 in the state list dealing with public order, which is distinct from law and order and entry 1 in concurrent list which gives sweeping power to state assemblies to legislate on the subject ‘criminal law’. Further, entry 39 in state list that gave assemblies power to enforce the attendance of witnesses for purpose of recording statements was also relied upon. In addition, he said that the issue raised a question of the legislative dignity of the Delhi Assembly.
Even the Peace and Harmony Committee joined as a party to the proceedings and was represented by senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan. The committee informed the Court that it had received the mandate to suggest measures to eliminate factors and situations having the potential to disturb communal harmony in the capital and to establish harmony among different religious or linguistic groups.
The Court reserved orders on the petition on February 24 this year but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the decision was delayed.