New Delhi: The Attorney General for India, K.K.Venugopal, has granted his consent to a lawyer for initiating contempt proceedings against the author of a YouTube video for allegedly making derogatory remarks against the judiciary in general, and the Supreme Court in particular.
The lawyer, Kritika Singh, sought Venugopal’s consent under Section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 read with Rule 3(c) of the Rules to Regulate Proceedings for Contempt of the Supreme Court, 1975 to initiate criminal contempt proceedings against Ajeet Bharti, who runs the “Do Politics” YouTube channel.
The video, which was uploaded on June 24, has so far gathered 1,89,300 views. The AG has recorded in his reply to Singh that it had been watched by about 1.7 lakh viewers as of Tuesday. The AG, through his consent, has apparently contributed to an increase of its viewership substantially.
The AG has described the contents of the video as vituperative, gross and highly derogatory to the Supreme Court of India and the judiciary as a whole, being clearly intended to denigrate the courts. The allegations made by Bharti against the Supreme Court are, among other things, of bribery, favouritism, nepotism and abuse of power.
The AG extracted a few statements made by Bharti from the English translation provided to him as follows:
“This Hon’ble Court harasses those criticising it “at its fucking will” using the web of collegium and contempt proceedings.
“The Supreme Court judges are “blackmailed” to hear a terrorist’s plea of human rights at midnight while relevant issues don’t even get the importance due to them. How can we forgive the sinners (judges of the Supreme Court) who get blackmailed at the hands of advocates?
“The Supreme Court was shown its real place by Prashant Bhushan, all at the expense of a fine of Rs.1…this looked like the entire judicial system was his mistress. He kept asking her to dance for his pleasures and she kept obliging”.
“He asks what he should do but “spit on the courts” for recusing from Mamata Banerjee’s case merely on technicality and asks if we should not expect justices coming from certain states to deliver judgments in an unbiased manner or is it that the judges are just afraid … either you are so attached to your Bengali roots that you think this tie is above the Indian Constitution and so you recuse yourself, or you are so scared of Mamata Banerjee that you recuse because you know what your future shall be since your families are in Bengal”.
“Our blind, deaf and lame judges cannot see the agenda brewing in the garb of protests.. As the blind goddess of justice is weighing vegetables in its balance and the sword of justice on the other hand has been so rusted from all the blood money that it has practically a protective case now.”
The AG observed in his letter to Singh:
“Whatever may be the motive behind the making of these scurrilous statements, it is obvious that the speaker who is quite educated would have known that the result would be to attract the contempt jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India, particularly since he makes several references to the contempt power of the Court, clearly inviting the contempt jurisdiction, with all its attendant publicity, being invoked against him.”
Venugopal had no doubt that the statements in question would lower the authority of the court in the eyes of the public and obstruct the administration of justice.
AG’s debatable stand
It is, however, debatable whether the video, which has been in the public domain for more than two months, has “lowered the authority of the court in the eyes of the public and obstructed the administration of justice” as the AG has claimed. Under Section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, the Supreme Court may take action on its own motion or on a motion made by the AGI or Solicitor General. In practice, if the petitioners who seek to initiate contempt of court proceedings against individuals secure the AG’s or SG’s consent, then they are deemed to have fulfilled the requirement under Section 15. Although the AG’s consent or lack of consent does not bind the Supreme Court, in the past the court had issued notices to alleged contemners out of deference to the AGI.
Last year, the Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan, R. Subhash Reddy and M.R. Shah issued notices to stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra and cartoonist Rachita Taneja for their tweets on the apex court, which the petitioners had alleged constituted contempt of court. The AG’s consent to the petitioners triggered the proceedings in these cases, which are still pending.
As the cases of Kamra and Taneja revealed, statements, even if found to be extremely intemperate and obnoxious, may not result in scandalising or lowering the authority of any court, let alone interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding or obstruct the administration of justice in any manner, as defined by the Contempt of Courts Act.
The Act is not meant to be used against those opinions which are in “bad taste” or those which merely cross the line between humour and contempt, as if these are two clearly-drawn binaries, as the AG might have suggested while giving consent in the cases of Kamra and Taneja. In the case of Bharti, the AG could have well substituted his “rant” for the “humour”, which was what Kamra and Taneja had intended in their tweets.
Justices S.S. Shinde and M.S. Karnik, of the Bombay high court, last year refused to initiate contempt proceedings against a litigant who lamented in the social media that her case suffered from “tareekh pe tareekh (adjournment after adjournment)”. They reasoned that the judiciary must not waste precious time on contempt hearings which can otherwise be utilised for hearing important questions of law.
The AG has contradicted himself by giving his consent to initiate contempt proceedings against Bharti. In an interview last year, the AG was of the view that if the Supreme Court initiated contempt action against those who denigrate the court in the social media, it could send a sobering message to all not to abuse the right to free speech. But the issue of notices to Kamra and Taneja has not deterred Bharti.
The Bharti case may well suggest that the AG’s assumption was naive, and his consent in such cases could be a short-cut to gain publicity for those who make a living out of social media platforms: the AG’s consent has led to increased viewership of Bharti’s video, and thus defeats its very objective. Therefore, even if the AG walks a tightrope and gives his consent only in extreme cases in which the alleged contemners invite contempt proceedings through their posts on social media, it may prove to be counter-productive.