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S.M. Narayanan and anr. Vs. S.R. Narayana Iyer - Court Judgment

LegalCrystal Citation
CourtChennai High Court
Decided On
Case NumberAppeal No. 173 of 1957
Reported inAIR1961Mad254
AppellantS.M. Narayanan and anr.
RespondentS.R. Narayana Iyer
Appellant AdvocateS. Mohan Kumarmangalam and ;K.V. Sankaran, Advs.
Respondent AdvocateK.V. Ramasesha Iyer, Adv.
DispositionAppeal partly allowed
Cases ReferredSubramania Iyer v. Hitchcock
.....of any person unprejudiced writer, would be to lead him into the belief that the plaintiff (sri. narayana aiyar), which seem to be very well known in his locality? but this very judgment contains a proviso that the comment cannot be so strong that 'no fair-minded person could have made it'.in grech v. held that, though the words complained of might be defamatory and untrue, yet nevertheless they were fair comment upon a matter of public interest. we may hence take it that, in this case, the libel is clearly made out, and that it is not justified either by a privilege of occasion, or by being within the bounds of fair comment or by its truth. actually, there have been prior attacks of precisely the same kind, though it is not clear from the record whether mr. nehru was not merely an..........of a monthly tamil journal published at coonoor. they were sued by the plaintiff (s. r, narayana aiyar) for damages to the tune of rs. 5500 in respect of a defamatory statement or libel made against the plaintiff by the first defendant (the editor) in the issue of the periodical, largely devoted to the interests of plantation labour, dated 15-1-1955.the learned subordinate judge of the nilgiris tried the action upon the merits, and came to conclusion that the imputations, were per sc so defamatory, that they were not entitled to protection as within the bounds of fair comment, nor of privilege, and that the plaintiff was hence entitled to damages. damages to the tune of rs. 1000 were awarded against both defendants with costs. the appeal is from these findings.2. the tamil.....

Anantanarayanan, J.

1. This is an appeal by the defendants in the court below who are the editor and the proprietor-printer respectively of a monthly Tamil journal published at Coonoor. They were sued by the plaintiff (S. R, Narayana Aiyar) for damages to the tune of Rs. 5500 in respect of a defamatory statement or libel made against the plaintiff by the first defendant (the editor) in the issue of the periodical, largely devoted to the interests of plantation labour, dated 15-1-1955.

The learned Subordinate Judge of the Nilgiris tried the action upon the merits, and came to conclusion that the imputations, were per sc so defamatory, that they were not entitled to protection as within the bounds of fair comment, nor of privilege, and that the plaintiff was hence entitled to damages. Damages to the tune of Rs. 1000 were awarded against both defendants with costs. The appeal is from these findings.

2. The Tamil text of the article containing the libel is reproduced in paragraph 6 of the judgment of the lower court. A true translation thereof, Ex. A 2, is also to be found at page 63 of the printed papers. Since there is very little doubt Or difficulty about the language employed, or its broad interpretation, I do not think that it is necessary for me to proceed into the niceties of expression in Tamil. Briefly stated, the article attacks the plaintiff, Sri S. R. Narayana Aiyar, in respect of an alleged statement made by him about Pandit Nehru, to the effect that Pandit Nehru was 'Jaffar Nehru' because of his Muslim predispositions.

The article then, proceeds to arraign the plain-tiff as a member of the Godse group or as a Godseite. The writer states, that there are still several persons of this group, who distributed sweets on hearing the news of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and were happy. Persons should be very vigilant, because there may be still many Godses and Narayana Ayyars amongst the public. A careful watch might have to be kept on persons of this description, as there is every likelihood of danger or menace from them. Further, according to the writer, it would be in the public interests, if the officers of the Criminal Investigation Department watched the movements of such persons with vigilance and sincerity.

3. There is no dispute, as I have earlier remarked, about the purport and tenor of the passage in question. Since Nathuram Godse was practically unknown as a politician or a public figure, except perhaps within the confines of Maharashtra, till he sprang into prominence upon the occasion of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and acquired immediately a country wide notoriety, I do not think that it can be seriously challenged either that the name of Godse is inevitably linked in the minds or the public with that tragic crime,

In other words, to brand any person as a Godseite or a member of that group from whom danger may be apprehended by the public, is to: impute, with very little innuendo about it, that that person was likely to adopt the methods of political assassination for enforcing his opinions. The little, vagueness that might remain about this interpretation is dispelled by the further statement of the writer that Godses and Narayana Ayyars were still amongst us, and that, in the public interests, the movement of such persons should be carefully watched by the officers of the Criminal Investigation Department.

4. There can be no doubt, in consequence, that the expressions complained of were highly defamatory per sc, and further that the effect of the entire passage, upon the mind of any person unprejudiced writer, would be to lead him into the belief that the plaintiff (Sri. Narayana Aiyar) was a person from whom violence against esteemed public leaders might be feared. This is not a mere fragmentary interpretation, founded upon one or two isolated sentences torn from the context. It is the general effect of this article headed 'We feel ashamed and vexed. There is still a crowd of Godses'.

Not merely this, but it is an impression reinforced by the explicit expressions used. The further questions that arise for our consideration, may be formulated as follows. Firstly, was the occasion a privileged one? Secondly, if the occasion were to be held privileged, has actual malice been established against the writer of the article? Thirdly, do the expressions exceed the bounds of fair comment, when we bear in mind the antecedents and general opinions of the plaintiff (S. R. Narayana Aiyar), which seem to be very well known in his locality? Finally, there is the question of the quantum of the damages, and the basis upon which damages should be ascertained.

5. In Halsbury's Laws of England, Simond's Edn, Vol. 24, page 8 in sub-section 3 of the Section 'Libel and Slander' it is observed that if the occasion was a privileged one, express or actual malice might have to be proved. The precise form in which this is put is

'If the occasion is such that there was either a duty or right to make the publication, it is said that the occasion rebuts the presumption of malice, but the malice (which here means malice in fact, or as it is technically called, express or actual malice) may be proved'.

In the present case, it is not seriously contended that there was a personal motive on the part of the writer to defame Mr. Narayana Aiyar. Hence, the question is of some importance in applying the legal principles to the facts, whether, the occasion was privileged, and whether the plaintiff should therefore have made out express or actual malice, apartfrom malice in law, which must necessarily accompany such defamatory statements per se.

6. Here, learned counsel for the appellants Mr. Sankaran) has very fairly conceded that the facts are such that a privilege of occasion could hardly be claimed. Two of the documents exhibited in this case, viz., Ex, A. 13 and A. 14, sufficiently illuminate the occasion for the writing of the article in the periodical. One Mr. Sham anna wrote a letter to the editor of the Blitz News Magazine in which he alleged that Mr. Narayana Aiyar had referred to Prime Minister Nehru as 'Jaffar Nehru', and the correspondent expressed surprise that such remarks were allowed.

Mr. Narayana Aiyar rejoined with an explanatory letter, Ex. A. 14, in which he denied the allegation, and claims that all that he asserted was that if Mr. Nehru became a 'Jaffar Nehru', viz,, by becoming a Muslim, he would forfeit his deposit in the next elections. The writer (first defendant) does not appear to have properly read and understood these two letters, and, admittedly, he made no reference to Mr. Narayana Aiyar, the same place, in order to ascertain the facts.

Upon the mere averment or opinion of Mr. Shamanna, and without further verification, die first defendant launched into the offending article in question, when there was hardly any occasion for this particular attack. It is for this reason that I must affirm that the question of privilege does not arise, except in a very qualified form. It is true that the facts do not establish a personal animus for the writer to move against Mr. Narayana Aiyar. But where the words employed, and the general purport of the article are highly defamatory per se, I do not understand the law to imply that personal animus must necessarily he shown to the satisfaction of the court.

There are two decisions relied on by Mr. Sankaran for the appellants both of which are of interest. In the first, Silkin v. Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd., 1958 1 W.L.R. 743, it is observed that what a person says by way of comment on a matter of public interest, honestly, however, exaggerated or prejudiced, is fair comment sustainable as a defence to a libel action. But this very judgment contains a proviso that the comment cannot be so strong that 'no fair-minded person could have made it'.

In Grech v. Odhams Press Ltd., 1957 3 All ER 556, Donovan J. held that, though the words complained of might be defamatory and untrue, yet nevertheless they were fair comment upon a matter of public interest.' I do not think that these decisions really help the appellants in the present case.

The views of Mr. Narayana Aiyar were not, in themselves, a matter of public interest at all, since, apart from being a practising lawyer, of some seniority and a citizen of Coonoor, his views no more concern the public than those of any other private individual of this Republic.

The matter could be said to have merited treatment as one of a public interest, only if Mr. Narayana Aiyar had openly, and in public, made any imputation which was the immediate provocation for the article. But where the writer launches into an attack, without even verifying the truth of that averment, which itself appeared as a reference in the letter of some other correspondent to the editor of Blitz News Magazine, I do not think that the writer is entitled to claim privilege of occasion.

As regards fair comment, I do not think that the words can fall within that scope; they would certainly have done so, had the writer contended himself with merely castigating Mr. Narayana Aiyar for his opinions. Even had the writer merely stated that Mr. Narayana Aiyar should be repudiated by all right thinking people, for his extreme views as a member of an extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha, the words would not have been objectionable.

But to proceed further, and to imply that Mr. Narayana Aiyar might also adopt the methods of Godse, and would equally be a proper object for vigilance by the C.I.D. police, is, in substance, to defame and blacken him in the eyes of the reading public of this periodical. It is not justified as fair comment. It is certainly not justified as truth. We have elaborate testimony on record, to which I shall make reference a little later, about Mr. Narayana Aiyar's antecedents, and his political views.

However, that may be, there is nothing in the record, which may be said to be excessively cumbered by excerpts from Mr. Narayana Aiyar's writings, to show that Mr. Narayana Aiyar believed in political assassination as a method of achieving his objects. On the contrary, in a book entitled 'What shall we do' by 'An obscure Hindu', which Mr. Narayana Aiyar undoubtedly wrote, and which bears an introduction from Dr. C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar, there is a passage at page 103, referred to Godse, written ante litem motam, long before the present libel In which the author characterises Godse as 'a despicable creature', and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi itself as a 'treacherous crime' which has brought everlasting disgrace to Hinduism itself.

Mr. Sankaran contends that Mr. Narayana Aiyar could not, with safety to himself, have said less; but that is not a generous or fair interpretation. We may hence take it that, in this case, the libel is clearly made out, and that it is not justified either by a privilege of occasion, or by being within the bounds of fair comment or by its truth. The question of motive must recede into die background, It is sufficient that malice in law has been fully proved.

7. But having arrived at these findings, it is essential that I should make some reference to the antecedents and the political viws of Mr. Narayana Aiyar, I have to do so, for two important reasons. Firstly, that has an intimate relevance to the question of the damages to be properly awarded in the present case, secondly, the admissions of Mr. Narayana Aiyar in evidence, and his antecedents, do provide a clear and rational explanation for this attack against him, which is not an isolated instance.

Actually, there have been prior attacks of precisely the same kind, though it is not clear from the record whether Mr. Narayana Aiyar sought and obtained redress on all these occasions. I shall content myself with a very condensed epitome of Mr. Narayana Aiyar's views and antecedents. As I hinted earlier, and as is perhaps unfortunately common in such actions, the record is swollen with passages and excerpts which have little relevance or significance. In brief, Mr, Narayana Aiyar has made no pretence about his political opinions and allegiances, from the very commencement,

In his views, and in his background generally, he seems to belong to that climate of opinion which characterises the extreme wing of the Hindu Mahasabha Organisation. He admits the following facts. According to him, pronouncing the name of Jinnah was a heinous crime. He feels that most of the Muslims in India are spies, who should be banished or compelled to return to Pakistan. Gandhiji committed a big error in working for Hindu Muslim unity. Mr. Nehru was not merely an impracticable patriot, but a leader who has brought disaster after disaster to the unfortunate people of India, In brief, he claims that 'Nehru is the evil Genius of India'.

Every concession to Muslim sentiment or claims, however legitimate, seems to him to be a national disaster. He does not believe in the secular state. He states that his heart trembles in sorrow and anger, when he hears that word. He believes in a militant Hindu State, and also believes that our foreign policy has landed us in a mire. Actually, he was described once as an embryo Godse and by another writer as a worshipper at the shrine of Godse, without the courage of Godse. Finally lie states, that, in his views, many of our legislators were incapable of earning a living outside the legislature, and adds--'I wish I had the strength of Bhima to thrash these fellows',

8. I think that even in this condensed form, the opinions and mentality of Mr. Narayana Aiyar are sufficiently evident. They explain the several violent attacks against him. Undoubtedly he is all liberty, in this secular State, where the fundamental freedoms of the individual are guaranteed under the Articles of our Constitution, to profess these views, and even to propogate them. But certainly he would be well advised, in doing so, to employ language which does not wound or injure the susceptibilities of fellow-citizens who might have their own loyalties to certain national leaders.

I find that, on one occasion when the dangerous trend of Mr. Narayana Aiyar's opinions and activities was discussed as between the authorities responsible for law and order in the district, the District Superintendent of Police (Mr. Ronsen) wrote to the District Magistrate to this effect that Mr. Narayana Aiyar 'has got a very loose tongue and is rather impulsive. He is not capable of doing any mischief. It is impossible to resist the inference that, to a considerable extent, Mr. Narayana Aiyar has called down upon himself these successive verbal assaults, mainly because he has not cared to practise either forbearance, or restraint and temperance in expression,

9. Mr. Sankaran would contend that, in view of this background which I have just referred to, the actual expressions did not exceed the bounds of propriety and fair comment. I have carefully considered this argument, and I must agree that there is certain plausibility and strength lent to it from the very record of the observations and writings of the plaintiff. Nevertheless, I think that it must be overruled because, as I have earlier clearly found, there is absolutely nothing to justify even a Superficial impression that Mr. Narayana Aiyar would go so far as to adopt the methods of political assassination, or that he favours them,

A very similar case, as far as the principles and the broad facts are concerned, is Subhash Chandra Bose v. Knight and Sons, : AIR1929Cal69 , and in many respects, that was a far stronger case for the defendant. But even on that occasion Rankin C. J. held, after an analysis of the facts in which the incidence of the principles is lucidly exposed, if I may say so with great respect, that the libel was actionable.

I do not think that it is necessary for me to state anything further on this aspect. Upon the broad merits the appeal must fail, unless it can be shown that Mr. Narayana Aiyar not merely has sympathy for the opinions or communal affinities of Godse or people like him, but that he actually favours the method of assassination adopted by Godse. That is a cruel and unjust imputation, against Mr. Narayanan Aiyar, as I can judge. That being so, and since the occasion was not really privileged, the libel is established.

10. Upon the question of damages, I have carefully considered the arguments urged by respective learned counsel, and I am of the view that the damages actually awarded are highly excessive, and not at all justified by the merits of the situation. At one stage in the proceedings which led to this litigation, Mr. Narayana Aiyar seems to have offered the opposite party the opportunity of an apology. That is certainly a relevant fact, and had the opportunity been fairly offered, I would certainly consider the situation aggravated by the contumacy of the defendants.

But I find from an actual perusal of the draft apology which defendants were called upon to sign, Ex, A. 16, that it was couched in such object terms that no editor- could have really signed it, compatible with his professional self-respect. It is true that the pleadings also show a strange attitude, as far as defendants are concerned. The written statement betrays Several defences, which are neither logical, nor convincing, and which seem to have been adopted in desperate attempt to meet the suit claim.

In brief, the defendants appear to desire to make out that they themselves did not condemn Godse, for having the courage of his convictions. But I do not think that it would be fair to tax the defendants too severely with these averments which merely savour of the strategy of litigation, I do not think that there has been any real aggravation in this sense, nor was there a real opportunity offered for an honourable apology. The further question is whether Mr. Narayana Aiyar should now be awarded nominal damages, or should be awarded substantial damages to the tune of Rs. 1000 as adopted by the lower court.

11. In this context. I must reiterate that Mr. Narayana Aiyar's antecedents, views and previous history, including the freedom and vigour with which he has always expressed those views, largely explain the impression which led to the writing of this article. I must also stress that, since Mr. Narayana Aiyar does not seem to have cared to practise verbal restraint in his own writings, it must be pleaded in mitigation of the offence of the appellants that they were provoked by the terms in which Mr. Narayana Aiyar either referred to, or was supposed to have referred, to Pandit Nehru.

Even taking Mr. Narayana Aiyar's own modification of the averments as the truth, viz, that he said that Pandit Nehru would be 'Jaffar Nehru' it he became converted as a Muslim and would forfeit his deposit at the elections, it is clear enough that such a contemptuous - reference to a greatly esteemed national leader may lacerate the feelings of others. Though learned counsel are unable to elucidate the particular word 'Jaffar' I think that it is a reasonable interpretation that the reference is to Mir Jaffar, who played a dubious role in Indian history by becoming a traitor to his master.

Again, I do not think that Mr. Narayana Aiyar has for a moment, succeeded in establishing that he has suffered any actual or substantial injury to his reputation. I have gone carefully through the evidence of the witnesses cited and examined to prove this fact, viz., P. Ws. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, and I find very little beyond this, that most or these persons affirm that they would have felt grossly insulted if anyone had called them a Godseite or follower of Godse. Mr. Narayana Aiyar is not a political figure of any significance.

The record only shows that he is a lawyer and a private citizen, who has certain limited public activities to his credit, like many other people. The concerned periodical is not likely to be read by the intelligentsia, and it largely circulates among plantation labourers, whose problems it deals with. I think it is impossible to claim, on the record, that substantial injury to the reputation of Mr. Narayana Aiyar has been caused by the offending article. It must further be recollected that the libel does concern the political views of Mr. Narayana Aiyar, and does not per se relate to his private life, or to his professional character and reputation as a lawyer.

12. I think that I have indicated sufficiently my grounds for the view that damages awarded should only be nominal in the present case. As observed in Kameswara Rao's 'Law of Damages and Compensation' 3rd Edn. page 16.

'Nominal damages are intended only where the plaintiff has sustained, injuria damnum, that is, where a right of his has been infringed, but not so as to cause any sensible damage'.

Mr. Swaminathan for the plaintiff-respondent argues that Mr. Narayana Aiyar suffered greatly in mind and health, because of his libel, and that that, circumstance ought to be taken into account. He further contends that, where a person like this plaintiff chooses the alternative of claiming substantial damages instead of an apology, the defendants have no option but to pay. He has placed considerable reliance upon the Bench decision of this court in Subramania Iyer v. Hitchcock, A.I.R. 1925 Mad 950. I have gone through this decision, and it appears tome that the facts of that case were very widely different, that the decision cannot be of any real help or value in the present context.

Actually, the one relevant passage is from Odgers on 'Libel and Slander' page 374 (quoted at page 954), to the effect that nominal damages should be awarded only where the plaintiff is content to clear up his character, and does not care to put money in his pocket. Mr. Swaminathan has actually advanced an argument, in all seriousness, which, I confess, I find a little startling, to the effect that there is nothing wrong in the utilisation of such an occasion by the plaintiff in order to seek and obtain the maximum monetary consolation that he could. That may be so, and it may be that there are certain passages in the authorities, lending support to Such an interpretation.

But I do not think that courts of law are bound to sustain in full actions for damages for libel which are primarily, intended for the monetary benefit of the plaintiff, taking advantage of the occasion of libel. On the contrary I think that, of all the factors relevant to the quantum of damages, the two most important are (1) the kind of justification which the writer might have had, even if the passage is defamatory per se, and malice in law is established and (2) the actual injury to reputation which the person defamed has suffered, as proved by the record. I am satisfied that this is a case only for nominal damages, and not for the award of substantial damages.

13. Accordingly, I allow the appeal only to the extent of reducing the quantum of damages awarded to plaintiff-respondent from Rs. 1000 to Rs. 100. As regards the costs the plaintiff will have actual costs of the court fee and advocate fee incurred in the lower court, according to the record. Parties will otherwise bear their own costs throughout.

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