Global Freedom of Expression

Kejriwal v. State of India

In Progress Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    February 5, 2024
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Affirmed Lower Court
  • Case Number
    CRL. M.C. 6347/2019
  • Region & Country
    India, Asia and Asia Pacific
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Defamation / Reputation, Digital Rights, Political Expression
  • Tags

Content Attribution Policy

Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:

  • Attribute Columbia Global Freedom of Expression as the source.
  • Link to the original URL of the specific case analysis, publication, update, blog or landing page of the down loadable content you are referencing.

Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.

Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Delhi High Court ruled that public figures (or persons with a large public following) who retweet or repost defamatory material on social media can prima facie attract liability for criminal defamation under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC), which provides sufficient basis for summoning them to trial as accused. Arvind Kejriwal, the incumbent Chief Minister of Delhi, and the petitioner in this case, retweeted an allegedly defamatory tweet by a YouTuber, accusing the IT Cell of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) of corruption. A criminal defamation action was initiated against Kejriwal, and he was summoned by the presiding Trial Court. Kejriwal requested the Delhi High Court to quash the summoning order. In rejecting Kejriwal’s petition, the Delhi High Court reasoned that public figures must be held to a higher standard of accountability for their social media activity given their influence and ability to shape public opinion. The Court argued that, owing to their clout, public figures can inflict significant reputational injury by negligently reposting defamatory imputations and, therefore, should not be allowed to escape criminal liability merely for not authoring at-issue libelous material.


On May 6, 2018, popular Indian YouTuber and blogger, Dhruv Rathee, uploaded a YouTube video in which he leveled corruption allegations against Vikas Pandey, the operator of a popular social media fan page dedicated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and the second respondent in this case. Subsequently, on May 7, 2018, Rathee shared this video on Twitter (now X) with a caption accusing the BJP’s IT Cell of bribing a third party to defame him. Arvind Kejriwal, the incumbent Chief Minister of Delhi, and the petitioner in this case retweeted this post without confirming the veracity of Rathee’s allegations.

Pandey began criminal proceedings for defamation under Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC against Kejriwal before a Trial Court in Delhi. The Trial Court summoned Kejriwal to appear in person through an order dated July 17, 2019. Kejriwal filed a revision petition against this order before the jurisdictional Sessions Court, which was dismissed on October 30, 2019. Aggrieved by these decisions, Kejriwal petitioned the Delhi High Court, seeking to quash the Trial Court’s summoning order.

Decision Overview

Justice Swarana Kanta Sharma delivered the judgement for the Delhi High Court. The main issue before the Court was whether a retweet could form the basis for summoning an accused to trial for criminal defamation under Section 499 of the IPC. Broadly, the aforementioned provision prohibits the utterance or publication of any words with the intent or knowledge that they will cause harm to the reputation of others. This provision is subject to ten codified exceptions, including the publication of true statements for the public good. Under Section 500 of the IPC the offence of criminal defamation is punishable with simple imprisonment for a term up to 2 years, or with a fine, or both.

Kejriwal argued that the Trial Court summoned him mechanically, without properly evaluating whether the alleged offence was made out since an essential element of criminal defamation is mens rea or criminal intent. According to the petitioner, such intent could not be inferred from the mere act of retweeting. Further, Kejriwal said that he was neither the author nor publisher of the ostensibly defamatory allegations against Pandey. Thus, the petitioner argued that none of the statutory requirements for criminal defamation were satisfied. Lastly, Kejriwal argued that while issuing the summoning order, the Trial Court failed to consider whether any of the enumerated exceptions to the offence of defamation under Section 499 of the IPC were applicable in this case.

For his part, Pandey argued that a prima facie case of criminal defamation was made out against Kejriwal since he negligently amplified the at-issue defamatory material by retweeting it. By doing so, Kejriwal made this material available to a wide audience both domestically and internationally, resulting in serious reputational injury to Pandey.

Relying upon the Supreme Court’s verdict in Iveco Magirus Brandschutztechnik GMBH v. Nirmal Kishore Bhartiya and Ors, the Delhi High Court held that at the stage of issuance of summons, trial courts need only to determine whether there exists “sufficient cause to issue process”, which is a distinct and lesser standard than “sufficient cause to convict” the accused. [para. 42] To make this determination, trial courts must decide whether the alleged offence is prima facie made out based solely on the contents of the criminal complaint.

The High Court opined that, in cases like the present, where a public figure has retweeted or reposted defamatory material without any disclaimer, the retweet will be considered a republication and is sufficient to establish a prima facie case for criminal defamation. This is because public figures possess phenomenal power to shape popular opinion. Consequently, their social media followers may blindly believe the defamatory imputations they make or recirculate about an individual, causing indelible reputational damage. Thus, it is imperative to hold public figures accountable for their conduct on social media, especially when they negligently repost libellous material without disclaimers.

The Delhi High Court, however, did not automatically extend the above rule to every act of retweeting or reposting defamatory content. To it, while every retweet constitutes republication, only unqualified retweets or reposts by public figures prima facie satisfy the requirements of Section 499 of the IPC for the issuance of summons in a criminal defamation trial. Thus, the dispositive factor in this case was the influence and reach of the individual retweeting the defamatory imputation. According to the Court “the impact on the aggrieved person’s reputation and his character will be much greater, since the larger audience and the influence wielded by a public figure would amplify the spread and longevity of the defamatory content.” [para. 76]

Finally, the Delhi High Court rejected Kejriwal’s argument that the mens rea requirement for criminal defamation was not satisfied since he was not aware of the contents of Rathee’s video. The Court opined that the issue of intent could only be decided during trial, not at the nascent stage of issuance of summons. Additionally, the Court said that whether any enumerated exceptions to criminal defamation apply to this case was also a matter for trial. For these reasons, the Delhi High Court upheld the Trial Court’s summoning order and dismissed Kejriwal’s petition.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

This ruling widens the scope of liability of public figures for criminal defamation. Seemingly, they can now be prosecuted for this offense simply for recirculating ostensibly defamatory material on social media, even without a showing of criminal intent to defame. From the judgment, it appears that intentionality is to be presumed when the person retweeting has significant influence or following. Obligating public figures to vet the authenticity of all content they repost could fetter their participation on social media and hamper the free exchange of information online, thereby chilling free expression. The Delhi High Court has also left the term “public figure” undefined, creating ambiguity regarding the applicability of its heightened accountability standard. This could result in a larger than intended section of the population self-censoring their social media activity to avoid prosecution.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

This case did not set a binding or persuasive precedent either within or outside its jurisdiction. The significance of this case is undetermined at this point in time.

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:

Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:


Have comments?

Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.

Send Feedback