Understanding Contempt of Court in India, the case against ‘Sanitary Panels’, and some questions that we must ask ourselves and each other about the functioning of the Supreme Court.
When I was younger, the phrase ‘contempt of court’ would elicit memories of a loud, confident lawyer in an American drama disregarding the rules of the court to drive their point home. A screaming elderly judge telling them that they will be held in contempt of court. However, In India and my adulthood, the reality of the term is very different and is used against stand-up comedians, lawyers, and even cartoonists who criticize the Supreme Court on Twitter.
The Legal Aspect
Before we get into what happened a few days around cartoonist Rachita Taneja, it’s important to understand what contempt of court is from a legal standpoint. It is a constitutional power given to the Supreme Court Of India. Article 29 of the Constitution of India states that “The Supreme Court of India shall be a court of record and shall have all the powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself ”. This constitutional right however mostly relates to contempt within the courtroom directed towards the judges or the proceedings itself.
The contempt of court which has been used against people’s tweets and opinions comes from The Contempt of Court Act, 1971, which divides contempt into 2 parts, civil and criminal contempt. According to the act, civil contempt is “willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other processes of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court”.
Criminal Contempt which has been used none too sparingly refers to:
“the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which
(i) scandalises(sic) or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
(iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner;”
While the legal aspects may be a bit tedious to go through, it’s important to go through it to understand and form an opinion around what the Supreme Court is doing. An important case judgment to look at is the case of ‘PN Duda vs Shiv Shankar and Others(1988)’ where the Supreme Court itself ruled that mere criticism of the court does not amount to contempt.
Now that the legal jargon is out of the way, it’s time to concentrate on what happened. Rachita Taneja is a digital organizer who works in the fields of environment, human rights, and net-neutrality and the founder of ‘Sanitary Panels’, a social media page where she draws cartoons often critical of the government.
A law student requested for contempt proceedings to be initiated against Taneja for two of her cartoons criticizing the Supreme Court’s decision to grant bail to Arnab Goswami, a spokesperson at Republic TV. On Tuesday, Attorney-General KK Venugopal gave his consent to initiate contempt proceedings against her.
This move brought more criticism against the Supreme Court of India, with people perplexed at the idea of prosecuting a cartoonist for her tweets. While there are cases from the Delhi Pogrom, against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and the removal of Article 370 in Kashmir still waiting to be heard in the Supreme Court, it is understandable why people are confused about why this is a priority.
Similar cases of contempt were lodged against Prashant Bhushan, an advocate, and Kunal Kamra, a stand-up comedian for tweets which insinuated that the apex court in India was partial towards the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) and their followers. Whether this is true or not is a topic that is up for debate, but the question still remains – does criticising this in a tweet amount to The Court being scandalized or unable to perform due administration of justice?
If one argues that it does scandalize the court and affect the dignity of the judiciary, surely the dignity of the Supreme Court in India should be on surer foundations wherein 0-280 characters do not faze it. If that is indeed the case, perhaps questions need to be raised on why the dignity of the court is so weak?
In 1988, Justice Sabyasachi Mukherjee spoke for the Supreme Court stating that statements of criticism did not hamper the administration of justice. He went on to say “If antisocial elements and criminals have benefited by decisions of the Supreme Court, the fault rests with the laws and the loopholes in the legislation. The Courts are not deterred by such criticisms.” In 2020, these criticisms are still valid so why is the Supreme Court finding it hard to administer justice due to criticism?
Rachita Taneja has received lots of love, support, and solidarity from people all over the country after proceedings were initiated against her, with many echoing her sentiments, and also surprised at the nature of the Court’s reaction.