Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras 1950

Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate

High Court Lucknow

Article

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Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras (1950) SCR 594 is one of the landmark judgments in Indian constitutional law, specifically with respect to freedom of speech and expression. The case is pivotal in shaping the contours of Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees to all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Background: In this case, the government of the State of Madras (now Tamil Nadu) banned the entry and circulation of the weekly journal called “Cross Roads,” printed and published in Bombay (now Mumbai) by Romesh Thappar. The ban was imposed under the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949, which gave the government the power to ban the circulation of any journal if it felt that the content could incite a rebellion or affect the public order.

Key Points and Analysis:

  1. Article 19(1)(a) vs Article 19(2):
    • Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the freedom of speech and expression. However, this freedom is not absolute. Article 19(2) allows the state to make laws that impose “reasonable restrictions” on this right in the interests of public order, defamation, contempt of court, etc.
    • In this case, the Supreme Court had to balance the individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression against the state’s power to impose restrictions in the interest of public order.
  2. Scope of “Public Order”:
    • The Court ruled that unless a law restricting the freedom of speech and expression is directly related to public order, it cannot be upheld. In other words, the restriction should be in the interest of public order and not just public safety.
    • The term “public order” was thus given a narrow interpretation. The mere likelihood of a disturbance of public order was not sufficient ground for imposing restrictions.
  3. Striking Down the Ban:
    • The Supreme Court held the ban on “Cross Roads” as unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that unless the circulation of the journal led to incitement to violence or had the tendency to create public disorder, the ban could not be justified.
    • The Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949, did not make a distinction between a threat to public order and a threat to public safety. Thus, it was deemed as being too broad and not a “reasonable restriction” under Article 19(2).
  4. Establishing the Precedent:
    • The judgment set a precedent for future freedom of speech and expression cases. It clarified that the state cannot curb this fundamental right unless there’s a clear threat to public order, and not just for a broad definition of public safety.
    • The Court emphasized the fundamental importance of the freedom of speech and expression in a democracy and warned against unnecessary restrictions.

Critique: While the judgment is hailed for upholding the freedom of speech and expression, it also paved the way for subsequent constitutional amendments. The First Amendment to the Indian Constitution, in 1951, added “public order” and “relations with foreign states” as grounds for restricting free speech, and expanded the scope of Article 19(2) to allow for a broader range of “reasonable restrictions.”

In conclusion, Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras serves as a testament to the Indian judiciary’s role in upholding fundamental rights. However, the subsequent amendments in response to the judgment indicate the complex challenges of balancing individual freedoms with state interests in a diverse and vast nation like India.