Author: Harshika Bhutda, a student at Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.

The act of making false claims about someone to a third party and harming their reputation is known as defamation. The act of spreading untrue information about someone that harms that person’s reputation in the eyes of the general public is called defamation. Defamation is defined as any purposeful, deliberate, and knowing comment that is untrue and unprivileged and is intended to harm someone’s reputation. According to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the notion of fame, notoriety, and recognition in public life is a basic right.  As provided by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the main reason to be aware of the rules controlling the statutorily acknowledged offence of defamation is to safeguard one’s dignity.

The Constitution’s Article 19 gives its inhabitants a number of liberties. Nonetheless, the reasonable exemption to the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1) (a) has been enforced by Article 19(2). Defamation, inciting an infraction, and contempt of court are a few examples of exclusions.

Both the criminal and civil laws consider defamation to be a crime. According to the Law of Torts, defamation is punished in civil law and the claimant may be granted damages as compensation. Defamation is a non-cognizable, compoundable, and bailable crime under the criminal code. Therefore, a police officer can only make an arrest with a magistrate’s arrest warrant. According to the Indian Penal Code, the offence carries a fine, a simple imprisonment sentence of up to two years, or both.

The publishing of a statement that has the potential to damage someone’s reputation in the eyes of others is known as defamation. Slander happens when a few little words or gestures are used, while libel happens when a declaration is made forever as in writing.  Libel is the term for defamation caused by written words. Slander is a type of transitory defamation that is created by spoken words.

The only real distinction between slander and libel is the manner in which the disparaging content is disseminated.  Consequently, defamation is the publication of false information about an individual with the purpose to harm that individual’s reputation. The defamatory remarks must have been published within the geographical jurisdiction, and the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused published the libel.


In civil law, defamation is mostly employed in relation to libel. The remark that was published about the person harms his reputation in the eyes of the public. A person may be sued for damages to be paid to the injured party if the following conditions are satisfied: It has to be a disparaging remark. The statement must only address the plaintiff. It is necessary to make such a declaration public. The intention in civil defamation is not necessary.


  1. The statement made in context to the other party must be false. The statement has no factual confirmation of being true.
  2. The statement made must be defamatory. The statement can either be prima facie defamatory, or it can be prima facie innocent but defamatory right with the context to the plaintiff.
  3. The statement must refer to the plaintiff. The statement cannot be defamatory if made to a general class of people, not someone in particular. A defamatory statement cannot be made in context to a dead person as the rights die with the person; it can only be defamatory if it affects the living connection of the dead person.
  4. The statement has to be published. Publication means communicating a defamatory statement to a third party in either slander or libel form. Confidential or privileged communication cannot be considered defamation.

Subramanian Swamy v.Union of India, (2016) 7 SCC 221

In 2014, Dr. Subramanian Swamy implicated Ms. Jayalathitha with corruption. In response, the State Government of Tamil Nadu charged Dr. Swamy with defamation. After that, the legality of Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860—which make up the country’s criminal defamation laws—was questioned by Dr. Swamy and other prominent lawmakers. Justices Dipak Misra and P. C. Pant comprised the two-judge Supreme Court panel that decided the case. The criminal defamation provisions included in Sections 499 and 500 were drafted arbitrarily, leaving the court to determine whether or not criminalizing slander is an unjustifiable limitation on free expression. The Court found that the IPC’s Sections 499 and 500 are neither unclear or imprecisely worded. The Constituent Assembly Debates helped the Court determine what the word “defamation” meant when it was used in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. As a result, the Court concluded that the phrase had its own distinct identity.


  1. Justification by truth. If the accused proves that the statement made is true and factual, then no remedy is necessary. Public officials do not need to prove that the statement is true but only reasonable verification of facts. There is no right to privacy in public office for official purposes.
  2. Fair and bonafide comment/honest comment. If the statement was made as a fair comment or an analysis of the person’s view, it cannot be considered defamatory.
  3. Apology: if an apology is made in a newspaper and accepted by the plaintiff, then there would not be suit. It is a defence not recognized in India.
  4. Privileges: there are two types of privilege: qualified or absolute privilege. Absolute privilege is given in parliamentary proceedings, judicial proceedings, and on official duty, while qualified privilege are given to reports of parliamentary and judicial proceedings.


In adherence to Section 499, defamation can occur when someone speaks or writes something about another person with the intention of harming their reputation, or when they have enough information to suspect that the person’s reputation will be tarnished. The goal of criminal defamation is to penalize the offender and make sure that no other commits the same crime. Defamation is covered under Sections 499 to 502 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

The essential elements of Indian Penal Code Section 499:

  1. An allegation to a party that feels wronged. The remarks must contain an imputation concerning a particular person or persons whose identity may be determined. It is not required that the individual be a single person.
  2. Intention: In order for something to be considered defamation, the words, signs, and imputations made by the accused must either be meant to harm someone’s reputation or the accused must reasonably know that their actions may do so.
  3. The assertion ought to be disparaging. The interpretation of a statement by right-thinking community members determines whether or not it is defamatory. 
  4. Making or publishing any false statement: A “publication” is any information about the defamatory matter that is disclosed to a person other than the one who has been falsely accused of a crime.

Exemptions from Section 499 IPC 

  1. 1.: Imputation of facts that must be produced or publicized for the general interest
  2. Public employees’ behaviour in public.Having an honest opinion about how a public worker should behave while carrying out his official duties is not considered slander.
  3. The behaviour of anybody addressing a matter of public concern. To voice opinions in good faith on the behaviour of any individual with regard to a public matter is not defamatory.
  4. It is not defamatory to publish a report that is essentially truthful of the procedures of a Court of Justice or the outcome of any such proceedings.
  5. Expressing an opinion regarding the merits of a civil or criminal case that has been determined by a Court of Justice in good faith is not defamatory.
  6. Expressing opinions on the merits of a performance in good faith is not defamatory.
  7. It is not defamatory for someone in a position of authority over another to criticize the actions of that other person in good faith when it comes to matters pertaining to that legitimate authority, regardless of whether that authority is derived from the law or a lawful contract.
  8. A sincere accusation made to an authorized individual
  9. A person’s honest imputation done to safeguard their own or others’ interests
  10. Conduct meant to further an individual’s well-being to the people with whom it was communicated.


Sections 500, 501, and 502 of Chapter XXI of the Indian Penal Code penalize defamation.

  • Section 500 of IPC states that if someone is found guilty of defamation under Section 499 of the IPC, they may be punished with a fine or simple imprisonment for a maximum of two years, depending on the circumstances.
  • Section 501 of the Indian Penal Code forbids the publication of defamatory material. It says that anybody who prints or engraves something that is defamatory would harm that person’s reputation and bring shame and embarrassment to their character, knowing or having reason to suspect that such a thing is defamatory. The maximum penalty allowed under this clause is two years in jail, a fine, or both.
  • Section 502 of the Indian Penal Code penalizes anybody who sells or plans to sell any printed item that he knows or has reasonable suspicion contains defamatory content. There will be a two-year maximum sentence for jail or a fine or both.

R. Rajagopal v. State of TamilNadu (1994)

In jail, Shankar, a murderer with a conviction, wrote an autobiography detailing his interactions with several high-ranking prison officials, some of whom were his accomplices. He gave his wife the autobiography with permission from the authorities, and she forwarded it to the Nakkeran magazine to be published.  In a letter to the publishers, the Inspector General of Prisons said that the autobiography was untrue, that publishing it was against prison policy, and that they would be subject to legal action under defamation and privacy laws if they kept publishing.  The Supreme Court received a plea from Nakkeran’s editor, printer, and publisher asking the relevant Tamil Nadu government agencies to refrain from taking any further action. The Supreme Court ruled that unless they can demonstrate that the publication is false and was done with genuine malice on the part of the defendant, public officials—in this case, police and jail officers—do not have the ability to claim for defamation damages for conduct they perform while doing their official responsibilities.

Criminal and civil defamation cases may be filed in India concurrently or consecutively. Protecting someone’s reputation is the goal of defamation laws. Freedom of speech and expression are seen as fundamental rights in a democratic nation; these rights are not unrestricted; defamation is one such justifiable restriction. The freedom of speech and expression have been appropriately balanced by the courts with the right to reasonable limitations on an individual’s right to live with dignity, which is equally significant and highly valued in public life.

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