PUBLICITY INTEREST LITIGATION
Despite the delays and other ills that plague our legal system, what has always made me proud of the Rule Of Law in India is that it can be a great leveller. A man on the street can send a postcard to the Chief Justice of a High Court or the Supreme Court saying that he is starving and the judiciary can treat that as a public interest litigation and come to his rescue. In the past, our courts have taken up a plethora of issues confronting the ordinary citizen in one breath; and in the other, frowned upon the VIP ‘red beacon’ culture of entitlement. Our Fundamental Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution, after all, includes the right to livelihood and ought to be a safeguard against poverty and starvation. While we conquer outer space and launch missions to the Moon, we still send human beings down manholes. Manual scavenging is an unacceptable practice, that mercifully, our courts continue to monitor and take suo motu action whenever such instances are reported. Whether it’s a top political leader throwing his weight around or a big builder violating norms or a top notch industrialist polluting the environment, the judiciary has cracked the whip.
Against this backdrop of judicial activism, it is so disconcerting to see folks going bonkers with the law. Just recently, I ended up watching a cricket match after quite sometime. I have covered cricket on national television and travelled overseas with the men in blue in the past. But I stopped following the game, probably due to all the match fixing and spot fixing and betting allegations. The India – Pakistan encounter was, however, too exciting to miss. The sight of Bollywood Star Amitabh Bachchan singing the National Anthem in his deep baritone voice was soul stirring. I got goose bumps listening to it. I can imagine how it would have fired up our players before they took on their arch rivals. My respect for the Big B went up several notches when I read that he paid from his own pocket for his air fare and hotel. And that someone would nit pick and pull out a stop watch and then file a criminal complaint against him for singing the anthem in a minute and ten seconds instead of 52 seconds, disturbs me. Actually, it doesn’t shock me. Remember, how not long ago, Shashi Tharoor faced a similar case for asking an audience to cross their hearts while the anthem was played, as they do in the United States? How on earth did Tharoor then or Bachchan now disrespect our anthem? The former UN official turned Union Minister and MP had the case dismissed eventually. From a purely legal standpoint, Bachchan’s a fit case for a High Court to invoke its inherent power under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and quash this vexatious complaint. In such cases, a trial is itself a punishment; something that a patriotic Indian who infused national pride, does not deserve to be subjected to.
Many years ago, actor Khushbu was hounded in several courts for a sensible comment in an interview on pre marital sex. Ultimately, an unfazed Khushbu got relief from the Supreme Court, which upheld her right to freedom of expression.
Targetting a celebrity is a proven and an instant strategy to push themselves in the limelight. Would the same ‘publicity’ interest litigants care about real issues that hurt national pride? Everytime a family goes to bed hungry, it hurts national pride. Evertime a girl baby is killed, it hurts national pride. Everytime a woman is raped, it hurts national pride. Everytime a child is abused, it hurts national pride. Everytime a corruption scam comes to light, it hurts national pride. Why don’t we see these self styled ‘saviours’ of national pride in action then? Because it’s not glamorous? Because they don’t guarantee column centimetres and air time?
While our higher judiciary does come down hard on this breed of court birds, I wish our police stations and lower courts are more circumspect about entertaining frivolous complaints. I wish our media stop short of mentioning the names of these publicity hungry individuals and outfits. Cut off their oxygen supply, which is publicity, and let’s see how many still abuse the law. Till that happens, can we please wake up and smell the real stench in our backyard?
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7 and Public Speaking Mentor)