3 May 2010

Speaking of 'sex' not necessarily liable for 'obscenity': Supreme Court

Giving respite against criminal prosecution to Tamil actress Khushboo [S. Khushboo Vs. Kanniammal & Anr. (2010) 5 SCC 600] for some remarks made by the appellant in an interview to a leading news magazine, the Supreme Court in its recent decision has made interesting observations on the aspect of law and morality in the country. 

The background leading to this case is interesting to consider. The same is noted in the decision as under;
3. ... In September 2005, `India Today' a fortnightly news magazine had conducted a survey on the subject of the sexual habits of people residing in the bigger cities of India. One of the issues discussed as part of this survey was the increasing incidence of pre-marital sex. As a part of  this exercise, the magazine had gathered and published the views expressed by several individuals from different segments of  society, including those of the appellant. The appellant expressed her personal opinion wherein she had noted the increasing incidence of pre-marital sex, especially in the context of live-in relationships and called for the societal acceptance of the same. However, appellant had also qualified her remarks by observing that girls should take adequate precautions to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the transmission of venereal diseases. This can be readily inferred from the statement which was published, a rough translation of which is reproduced below: 
"According to me, sex is not only concerned with the body; but also concerned with the conscious. I could not understand matters such as changing boyfriends every week. When a girl is committed to her boyfriend, she can tell her parents and go out with him. When their daughter is having a serious relationship, the parents should allow the same. Our society should come out of the thinking that at the time of the marriage, the girls should be with virginity.
None of the educated men, will expect that the girl whom they are marrying should be with virginity. But when having sexual relationship the girls should protect themselves from conceiving and getting venereal diseases."

It was in this background that various complaints were made and cases registered against her purporting "to allege that the appellant's interview had brought great shame on her since it had suggested that women of her profile had engaged in premarital sex. The complainant further alleged that the appellant's remarks had caused mental harassment to a large section of  women, and in particular women from Tamil Nadu were being looked down upon with disrespect and contempt."

Repelling the various allegations against her, the Supreme Court was of the view that no there had been no offence committed by her to be prosecuted for obscenity or otherwise. Holding that the allegations were misplaced, the Court expressed its opinion as under;
16. Coming to the substance of the complaints, we fail to see how the appellant's remarks amount to `obscenity' in the context of Section 292 IPC. Clause (1) to Section 292 states that the publication of a book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation, figure, etc., will be deemed obscene, if - 
- It is lascivious (i.e. expressing or causing sexual desire) or 
- Appeals to the prurient interest (i.e. excessive interest in sexual matters), or
- If its effect, or the effect of any one of the items, tends to deprave and corrupt persons, who are likely to read, see, or hear the matter contained in such materials.
In the past, authors as well as publishers of artistic and literary works have been put to trial and punished under this section. In the present case, the appellant takes full responsibility for her statement which was published in `India Today', a leading news magazine. It would be apt to refer back to the decision of this Court in Ranjit D. Udeshi Vs. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1965 SC 881, wherein it was held that if a mere reference to sex by itself is considered obscene, no books can be sold except those which are purely religious. It was observed that in the field of art and cinema, the adolescent is shown situations which even a quarter of a century ago would be considered derogatory to public morality, but having regard to changed conditions, the same are taken for granted without in any way tending to debase or debauch the mind. What is to be considered is whether a class of persons, not an isolated case, into whose hands the book, article or story falls will suffer in their moral outlook or become depraved by reading it or might have impure and lecherous thoughts aroused in their minds. Even though the decision in that case had upheld a conviction for the sale of a literary work, it became clear that references to sex cannot be considered obscene in the legal sense without examining the context of the reference.
17. This position was later clarified in Samaresh Bose Vs. Amal Mitra, AIR 1986 SC 967, where the Court held that in judging the question of obscenity, the judge in the first place should try to place himself in the position of the author and from the viewpoint of the author, the judge should try to understand what is it that the author seeks to convey and whether what the author conveys has any literary and artistic value. Judge should thereafter place himself in the position of a reader of every age group in whose hands the book is likely to fall and should try to appreciate what kind of possible influence the book is likely to have on the minds of the reader.
18. There are numerous other decisions, both from India and foreign country which mandate that `obscenity' should be gauged with respect to contemporary community standards that reflect the sensibilities as well as the tolerance levels of an average reasonable person. Owing to the clear formulation on this issue it is not necessary for us to discuss these precedents at length. In the present case, the appellant has merely referred to the increasing incidence of pre-marital sex and called for its societal acceptance. At no point of time appellant described the sexual act or said anything that could arouse sexual desires in the mind of a reasonable and prudent reader. Furthermore, the statement has been made in the context of a survey which has touched on numerous aspects relating to the sexual habits of people in big cities. Even though this survey was not part of a literary or artistic work, it was published in a news magazine thereby serving the purpose of communicating certain ideas and opinions on the above-mentioned subject. In the long run, such communication prompts a dialogue within society wherein people can choose to either defend or question the existing social mores. It is difficult to appreciate the claim that the statements published as part of the survey were in the nature of obscene communications.
19. We must also respond to the claim that the appellant's remarks could have the effect of misguiding young people by encouraging them to indulge in premarital sex. This claim is a little far-fetched since the appellant had not directed her remarks towards any individual or group in particular. All that the appellant did was to urge the societal acceptance of the increasing instances of premarital sex when both partners are committed to each other. This cannot be construed as an open endorsement of sexual activities of all kinds. If it were to be considered so, the criminal law machinery would have to take on the unenforceable task of punishing all writers, journalists or other such persons for merely referring to any matter connected with sex in published materials. For the sake of argument, even if it were to be assumed that the appellant's statements could encourage some people to engage in premarital sex, no legal injury has been shown since the latter is not an offence.
20. "Offence" means `an act or instance of offending'; `commit an illegal act' and illegal means, `contrary to or forbidden by law'. "Offence" has to be read and understood in the context as it has been prescribed under the provisions of Sections 40, 41 and 42 IPC which cover the offences punishable under I.P.C. or under special or local law or as defined under Section 2(n) Cr.P.C. or Section 3(38) of the General Clauses Act, 1897 (vide Proprietary Articles Trade Association Vs. Attorney General for Canada AIR 1931 PC 94Thomas Dana Vs. State of Punjab AIR 1959 SC 375; Jawala Ram & Ors. Vs. The State of Pepsu (now Punjab) & Ors. AIR 1962 SC 1246; and Standard Chartered Bank & Ors. Vs. Directorate of Enforcement & Ors. AIR 2006 SC 1301). 
21. While it is true that the mainstream view in our society is that sexual contact should take place only between marital partners, there is no statutory offence that takes place when adults willingly engage in sexual relations outside the marital setting, with the exception of `adultery' as defined under Section 497 IPC. At this juncture, we may refer to the decision given by this Court in Lata Singh Vs. State of U.P. & Anr., AIR 2006 SC 2522, wherein it was observed that a live-in relationship between two consenting adults of heterogenic sex does not amount to any offence (with the obvious exception of `adultery'), even though it may be perceived as immoral. A major girl is free to marry anyone she likes or "live with anyone she likes". In that case, the petitioner was a woman who had married a man belonging to another caste and had begun cohabitation with him. The petitioner's brother had filed a criminal complaint accusing her husband of offences under Sections 366 and 368 IPC, thereby leading to the commencement of trial proceedings. This Court had entertained a writ petition and granted relief by quashing the criminal trial. Furthermore, the Court had noted that `no offence was committed by any of the accused and the whole criminal case in question is an abuse of the process of the Court'.
22. It would also be instructive to refer to a decision of the House of Lords (U.K.) in Gillick Vs. West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority, (1985) 3 All ER 402. In that case, mother of a teenage girl had questioned the decision of the National Health Service (NHS) to issue a circular to local area health authorities which contained guidelines for rendering advice about contraceptive methods to girls under the age of 16 years. Objections were raised against this circular on the ground that the health service authorities had no competence to render such advice and that doing so could adversely affect young children while at the same time interfering with parental autonomy in the matter of bringing up children. The majority decision rejected the challenge against the circular by clarifying that the rendering of advice about contraceptive methods and their provision by medical professionals did not amount to a sexual offence. Among the several aspects discussed in that case, it was held that the provision of information about contraceptive facilities to girls under the age of 16 years could not be opposed on the ground that such information could potentially encourage more sexual activity by the teenagers. For the purpose of the present case, this decision supports the reasoning that we must fully understand the context and the purpose for which references to sex have been made in any given setting. 
29. Even though the constitutional freedom of speech and expression is not absolute and can be subjected to reasonable restrictions on grounds such as `decency and morality' among others, we must lay stress on the need to tolerate unpopular views in the socio-cultural space. The framers of our Constitution recognised the importance of safeguarding this right since the free flow of opinions and ideas is essential to sustain the collective life of the citizenry. While an informed citizenry is a pre-condition for meaningful governance in the political sense, we must also promote a culture of open dialogue when it comes to societal attitudes. Admittedly, the appellant's remarks did provoke a controversy since the acceptance of premarital sex and live-in relationships is viewed by some as an attack on the centrality of marriage. While there can be no doubt that in India, marriage is an important social institution, we must also keep our minds open to the fact that there are certain individuals or groups who do not hold the same view. To be sure, there are some indigenous groups within our country wherein sexual relations outside the marital setting are accepted as a normal occurrence. Even in the societal mainstream, there are a significant number of people who see nothing wrong in engaging in premarital sex. Notions of social morality are inherently subjective and the criminal law cannot be used as a  means to unduly  interfere with the domain of personal autonomy.
Immorality and Criminality are not co-extensive. In the present case, the substance of the controversy does not really touch on whether premarital sex is socially acceptable. Instead, the real issue of concern is the disproportionate response to the appellant's remarks. If the complainants vehemently disagreed with the appellant's views, then they should have contested her views through the news media or any other public platform. The law should not be used in a manner that has chilling effects on the `freedom of speech and expression'. It would be apt to refer to the following observations made by this Court in S. Rangarajan Vs. P. Jagjivan Ram & Ors., (1989) 2 SCC 574, which spell out the appropriate approach for examining the scope of `reasonable restrictions' under Art. 19(2) of the Constitution that can be placed on the freedom of speech and expression:- " ... Our commitment of freedom of expression demands that it cannot be suppressed unless the situations created by allowing the freedom are pressing and the community interest is endangered. The anticipated danger should not be remote, conjectural or far-fetched. It should have proximate and direct nexus with the expression. The expression of thought should be intrinsically dangerous to the public interest. In other words, the expression should be inseparably locked up with the action contemplated like the equivalent of a `spark in a powder keg'. 
The Court further held: " ... The standard to be applied by the Board or courts for judging the film should be that of an ordinary man of common sense and prudence and not that of an out of the ordinary or hypersensitive man ... The different views are allowed to be expressed by proponents and opponents not because they are correct, or valid but because there is freedom in this country for expressing even differing views on any issue. ... Freedom of expression which is legitimate and constitutionally protected, cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people. The fundamental freedom under Article 19(1)(a) can be reasonably restricted only for the purposes mentioned in Article 19(2) and the restriction must be justified on the anvil of necessity and not the quicksand of convenience or expediency. Open criticism of government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression. We must practice tolerance of the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself."
30. Thus, dissemination of news and views for popular consumption is permissible under our constitutional scheme. The different views are allowed to be expressed by the proponents and opponents. A culture of responsible reading is to be inculcated amongst the prudent readers. Morality and criminality are far from being co-extensive. An expression of opinion in favour of non-dogmatic and non-conventional morality has to be tolerated as the same cannot be a ground to penalise the author. 

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