The Delhi assembly has told the Supreme Court that no coercive action has been taken against Facebook India VP and MD Ajit Mohan and he was only summoned by its Peace and Harmony committee to appear as witness in connection with north east Delhi riots. In an affidavit, filed in pursuant to a plea by Mohan and Facebook in the top court against the summons, the Delhi Assembly said that Mohan has not been issued any summons for breach of privilege.
It said, “No coercive action has been taken against the petitioner number 1 (Mohan) and none was intended if he merely attended and participated in the proceedings as a witness. It is also important to note that the proceedings are being conducted in the most transparent manner with live broadcast and therefore there is no question of any apprehension in respect of the proceedings either by the Petitioner No. 1 or anyone else."
Terming the plea of Mohan as premature, the Assembly said that Mohan has not been issued any summons for breach of privilege whereas the grounds urged in the instant proceedings relate to and proceed on the assumption that there has been issuance of summons for breach of privilege. “There is no notice to the Petitioner No.1 (Mohan) asking him to appear before this Committee of Respondent No.1 (Assembly) for a breach of privilege or contempt of the Committee. It has not been alleged at any time by the Committee of Respondent No.1 that the Petitioner has already committed a breach of privilege," it said.
The affidavit added that there is no occasion for the Committee to report to the Speaker about Mohan having committed any breach of privilege. It said that the procedure for breach of privilege is separate and that stage had not as yet been reached and even the mention of it was made for the first time in communication dated September 18, in light of the refusal of Mohan pursuant to validly issued summons September 10.
“The proceedings of the assembly cannot be called in question in the court of law and the member or the Presiding Officer in whom powers are vested for regulating the procedure or conduct of business is not subject to the jurisdiction of courts in respect of exercise by him of those powers," it said. It said that the Peace and Harmony committee of the assembly had received multiple complaints/representations addressed to its chairman Raghav Chadha, underscoring the alleged instances of inaction/inability on the part of social media platform-Facebook to enforce its policies against inflammatory and hateful contents.
It was alleged in the complaints/representations that even in respect of Delhi riots in February 2020, a lackadaisical approach of Facebook was visible, it said. It added that to delve into the matter, the committee invited witnesses having incisive knowledge as well as deep insights and they pointed out amongst many other things including that the Facebook did not take any credible action against hateful material on its platform during Delhi riots bit has consistently sheltering hate against vulnerable minority communities for a very long time.
The affidavit said that it was only that the committee decided to summon Mohan and initially a notice/summons was issued on September 10 seeking his presence on September 15 before the committee. The assembly further said that on September 18, fresh summons were issued and it was only at this stage that Mohan refused to appear. It said, They (Mohan and others) represent the social-media platform, which has lakhs of users in the NCT of Delhi and the committee wants to ascertain its views on the question whether the said company’s platform has contributed in any way to the building up of a situation in Delhi which ended in communal riots in February 2020 and also how these platforms could be used to strengthen the unity among the citizens of Delhi in the future".
The proceedings before a committee of the legislature are not criminal or judicial proceedings. There is no accused before a committee. All persons who appear before it are witnesses and are subjected to the examination by its members as per rules of the house, it said. The assembly said the issue of article 14 or Article 21 does not arise as Mohan has merely been summoned to give its expert deposition before the committee on the issue falling in the remit of the committee. On September 23, the top court had directed the assembly’s panel not to take any coercive action against Mohan till October 15.
The top court had sought response from the secretary of the Legislative Assembly, the ministries of Law and Justice, Home Affairs, Electronics and IT, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, represented by the Secretary General, and Delhi Police. The apex court noted that the only purpose of serving notice to Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is because in the perception of the petitioner’s lawyer there may be some interplay of the powers of the Delhi Assembly and the Secretariats in question.
The plea filed by Mohan, Facebook India Online Services Pvt. Ltd and Facebook, Inc, which contended that the committee lacks the power to summon or hold petitioners in breach of its privileges for failing to appear and it was exceeding its constitutional limits. They have challenged the September 10 and 18 notices issued by the committee that sought Mohan"s presence before the panel which is probing the Delhi riots in February and FB’s role in spread of alleged hate speeches.