Facebook India Vice-President Ajit Mohan on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that the “right to silence is a virtue in present noisy times”, Live Law reported. Mohan made the submission during the hearing of his petition challenging summons by the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the communal violence that took place in the Capital last year.
Advocate Harish Salve, who appeared for Mohan, argued that it was not the “core function” of the Assembly to set up a panel to examine matters related to peace and harmony. “There are two broad silos, one is existence of powers in compulsion of appearance and second is competence,” he said. “I will submit that they are wrong on both.”
Salve urged the court not to allow the “expansion of powers through the backdoor”. “If you want my views, I don’t want to talk about peace and harmony in India,” he submitted on Mohan’s behalf. “Today it may be Facebook, tomorrow it will be somebody else but there has to be a law laid down by your lordships. Please protect citizens’ rights and particularly right to silence.”
The lawyer added: “In the noisy times of the present, right to silence is a virtue. And leave it to me to decide, whether or not I want to go and lay down that the summons.”
The bench headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul noted that logically, Facebook was a platform for debate, Hindustan Times reported. “But you say that you do not want to participate in a debate or a discussion or an inquiry before any committee,” the judge added. “But you still want to carry out business in India. You are saying that I am willing to do business in India, I will provide a platform for debate but I do not want to be accountable. That is a very difficult proposition to accept.”
The court reserved its order on Mohan’s petition.
Earlier this month, the Delhi Assembly had issued a fresh notice to Facebook India, asking a “senior competent person” to appear and testify before its committee. Mohan had, then, invoked his right to silence and questioned the jurisdiction of the committee to summon a private person under a threat of breach of privilege action against him.
The Peace and Harmony Committee had asked Mohan to appear for questioning on September 23 last year – a second round of summons – over allegations that the social media giant’s laxity in applying hate speech rules and policies contributed to the February 2020 violence. At least 53 people were killed and scores injured in the violence that rocked North East Delhi.
Mohan had not appeared for the first round, when the committee summoned him on September 12, following an August 14 report in The Wall Street Journal that Facebook’s India public policy head Ankhi Das had opposed removing incendiary posts by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders during the violence. Das had later resigned from her post.
After the panel summoned him the second time and said that his non-appearance would be treated as breach of privilege, the Facebook executive moved the Supreme Court. On September 23, the Supreme court ordered the Delhi Assembly panel to not take any coercive action against Mohan till October 15.
The legislative Assembly responded to Mohan’s plea, arguing that he cannot claim the right to remain silent as no coercive action was taken nor is intended to be taken merely if he appears before the Peace and Harmony Committee.