The Supreme Court on Thursday quashed a first information report registered against a college professor in Maharashtra for a WhatsApp status criticising the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and for wishing Pakistan on its independence day.

A bench of Justices Abhay Oka and Ujjal Bhuyan said that the time has come to “educate our police machinery” on the freedom of expression and the extent to which it can be reasonably restrained.

The Supreme Court was hearing the case of Javed Ahmad Hajam, a professor at a college in Kolhapur, who had in 2022 allegedly posted three messages on his WhatsApp status that said: “August 5-Black Day Jammu & Kashmir”, “14th August Happy Independence Day Pakistan” and “Article 370 was abrogated, we are not happy”.

Hajam was at the time part of a WhatsApp group of parents and teachers, some of whom took offence to the messages.

A first information report was then registered against him under Section 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code – which deals with promoting enmity between different groups – at the Hatkanangale police station in Kolhapur.

Hajam approached the Bombay High Court demanding that the case against him be quashed. On April 10, the High Court held that while the post on Pakistan’s independence day was not a crime under Section 153(A), the other posts attracted the offence.

The Supreme Court, however, said on Thursday that citizens have the right to criticise decisions made by the government and to extend good wishes to other countries on their respective independence days.

A bench of Justices Abhay Oka and Ujjal Bhuyan said that describing the day on which Article 370 was abrogated as a “Black Day” was an expression of protest.

“If every criticism or protest of the actions of the State is to be held as an offence under Section 153(A), democracy, which is an essential feature of the Constitution of India, will not survive,” the bench said.

The top court said the right to dissent should respected. “The right to dissent in a lawful manner must be treated as a part of the right to lead a dignified and meaningful life guaranteed by Article 21,” it remarked. “But the protest or dissent must be within four corners of the modes permissible in a democratic setup,” the court added.

The bench said that the petitioner had “not at all crossed the line”. The court further said that ulterior motives could not attributed to Hajam on account of his religion.