The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to quash the summons issued by Delhi Assembly asking Facebook India Vice President and Managing Director Ajit Mohan to appear as a witness before its Peace and Harmony committee which is probing the February 2020 Delhi Riots.
The top court observed that Mohan's challenge to the summons was "premature" and "pre-emptive" since nothing had happened before the committee. The court accepted the Delhi Assembly's submission that no coercive action will be taken against Mohan and that they required his assistance in examining a social problem.
Delhi Assembly can constitute a committee to look into social problems: SC
The top court upheld Delhi Assembly's power to constitute the 'Peace and Harmony' committee to examine the Delhi communal riots since it was more a social issue as opposed to a law and order issue.
"The Assembly admittedly does not have the power to legislate under the issues which fall under the domain of union government. However, the objective of peace and harmony go beyond law and order and police," the apex court bench comprising Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy said.
Delhi's Assembly is not different from assemblies in other states except for certain subjects which lie with the Centre, the top court noted. "Investigation of a socially complicated problem too is under its (state's) domain," Justice Kaul said reading out the verdict.
However, the court cautioned that the committee did not have the authority to act like a prosecuting agency and direct filing of the supplementary chargesheet etc. Therefore, Mohan—as Facebook's representative—could deny answering any question which is beyond the scope of the committee, the court added.
The top court also took exception to the Delhi government's press conference where it had castigated Facebook for its alleged role in the Delhi Riots. "The statements made in the press conference by respondents were hardly conducive to the proceedings before the committee. It was said Facebook had a vested interest in Delhi riots.... these statements should not have been made and can give rise to apprehension in the mind of the petitioner (Mohan)," Justice Kaul said.
The Supreme Court's judgment further noted the impact social media has on the population at large and the difficulties that entail in regulating content on such sites.
"Technological age has created digital platforms which can be uncontrolled at times. One such creation is of intermediaries which states that they have no control over the content people post. Less informed individuals may not verify information from leaders and take it as gospel truth," the Court observed.
The top court on February 24 reserved its verdict on a plea filed by Mohan, along with Facebook India Online Services Pvt Ltd and Facebook Inc, who had challenged the Delhi Assembly's Peace and Harmony Committee's summons after they failed to appear before it as witnesses in connection with the February 2020 Delhi riots matter.
On September 10 and 18, 2020 the committee had issued notice seeking Mohan's presence in connection with its probe of the Delhi riots in February 2020 and Facebook's alleged role in the spread of hate speeches.
During arguments, Mohan had submitted that the right to silence is a virtue in present noisy times. Senior advocate Harish Salve, representing Mohan, added that the Delhi Assembly did not have the legislative power to constitute a committee on peace and harmony since law and order in the national capital fell under the Centre's domain.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, supported Salve's argument saying law and order was the domain of the Delhi Police which answered to the Centre. Mehta added that the Peace and Harmony committee was without jurisdiction since the issue pertained to law and order.
Senior advocate AM Singhvi, representing the assembly's panel, argued the assembly had the power to summon. Singhvi said the Delhi assembly had not taken any coercive action against Mohan and he was only summoned to appear as a witness.