It is just as well that attorney general K.K. Venugopal does not live and practice in the US. Or Britain. He is getting angry over what he sees as brazen attacks on the Supreme Court.
He has given his approval for a comedian to be tried for contempt of court over a few tweets. What would he make of the situation in the US, where comedians routinely make fun of everyone, including judges? He would spend all his time saving the honour of Their Honours.
US President Donald Trump has been the butt of non-stop humour and satire for the past four years and more; but here are examples of comedians making fun of Brett Kavanaugh, who was a circuit judge in the District of Columbia before being appointed to the Supreme Court by Trump.
In Britain, the magazine Private Eye, which is an equal opportunity offender, lampooning the high and mighty, has frequently been sued for libel and once, when the courts gave an award of nearly a million pounds to the wife of a serial murderer who had sued the Eye, the editor responded, “If that’s justice, I am a banana.” Its columns frequently make fun of court proceedings
Venugopal would probably have been apoplectic, but since we are not in the West, he can easily say that the people of India have to behave differently. He has given his go ahead for initiating contempt proceedings against comedian Kunal Kamra. He – and, presumably the judges too – will not stand for any such levity. Kamra thought he was being funny – well, let’s show him the error of his ways, so that other comedians don’t follow his example.
But Venugopal has not been consistent in dealing with contempt of their lordships.
On August 20 this year, Venugopal, himself a distinguished lawyer, in connection with the contempt case against Prashant Bhushan, told the Supreme Court: “If there is an expression of regret, and if the affidavit is withdrawn, perhaps the case can be dropped. It will be better to resolve the issue. The court could warn him and drop the issue.” He urged the apex court to take a “compassionate” view on the case.
In the same hearing, Venugopal also told the judges that he himself had the names of nine former judges who had, after their retirement, said that there was corruption at the higher levels of the judiciary. The bench, consisting of three judges, did not allow Venugopal to proceed further.
Barely two and a half months after the Bhushan case – in which the latter was fined a token sum of one rupee, Venugopal has now given his consent to prosecute Kamra who had tweeted about the Supreme Court after it granted bail to Arnab Goswami. Goswami’s petitions had gone from a small sessions court to the Supreme Court in a week, which was breakneck speed in a judicial system that moves much more slowly.
Kamra’s tweets got Skand Bajpai, a law student, so riled up that he approached the AG with a request to file a contempt case—the AG’s consent, which is mandatory, came swiftly. In his letter, Venugopal wrote: “I believe it is time people understand that attacking the Supreme Court of India unjustifiedly and brazenly will attract punishment under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.”
Judges don’t often get criticised in India, mostly because of fear of being slapped with a contempt of court case (a concept often misunderstood) and general respect for the judiciary, which, for all its sluggishness, is seen as independent, the Supreme Court most of all. Those with long memories will know that in the 1980s, after its capitulation during the Emergency, the Supreme Court, and judges like Krishna Iyer, did not just take suo moto notice of newspaper reports, but also leaned on the side of freedom, liberty and liberalism.
Why the court has come in for criticism recently
But in recent years, many court judgements have left people aghast which has drawn a lot of criticism, much of it on social media. The wild west of social media is the site of unfiltered comments, though since professional trolls are not particularly attacking the court, the language of the criticism against the judges has been generally parliamentary—none of that familiar abuse and invective, in shoddy grammar – that one normally sees when ‘liberals and sickulars’ are the target.
The old conventions and rules don’t apply on social media – people feel uninhibited about expressing themselves; moreover, they have a platform that allows them to say whatever they want, something that did not exist a few years ago. A letter to a newspaper against judges and courts would have found its way into the waste-paper basket in an earlier era; now it becomes a trending tweet.
Kunal Kamra has built a career on direct, broad humour of public figures rather than using subtle, rapier-like thrusts. He is the quintessential cheeky college boy, provocative and full of practical jokes, such as a video filming himself asking questions of Arnab Goswami on a flight. I am not a big fan of his obscenities-laced act, but in a world where other comedians have gone silent on politics and certainly hesitate to mention BJP leaders by name, his candour is much-needed. Court-jesters – so to speak – are a safety valve that allows society to release some of its anger and frustration – they say the unsayable especially at a time when frankly expressed opinions can land you in jail.
But political leaders and even Goswami are low hanging fruits – even a casual ‘The Nation Wants to Know’ will get a laugh. Taking on the judges, that too on Twitter, is chutzpah, since it is a territory no one wants to venture into. His tweets by themselves are not really offensive; they just try and expose what he sees is the special treatment the Supreme Court gave to Goswami, which is not available to ordinary citizens and to the number of rights activists who are languishing in jail for years.
This point has been made repeatedly in the last few months – the cases of Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde and two 80-year-olds, Varavara Rao and Stan Swamy, both ailing in prison, have been compared in contrast to the quick bail to Goswami. The observations by Supreme Court judge D.Y. Chandrachud on personal liberty, while welcome, sound like pieties when, just four days later, the Supreme Court adjourned a habeas corpus hearing on a jailed Kerala journalist whose crime was going to Hathras, in UP, to cover the rape and killing case of a young girl. “We are trying to discourage Article 32 petitions,” Chief Justice S.A. Bobde told the journalist’s lawyer Kapil Sibal, without perhaps noting the irony of his observation.
A case of double standards?
What is the message one is to draw from all this? Only that the courts apply double standards when it comes to issues of personal liberty and freedom. Goswami’s alignment with the ruling party in Delhi is no secret—is that a necessary condition to get the courts to expedite your case? Also, no one will argue against him getting bail, which should be more the rule than the exception.
But when one person gets such preferential treatment while the others languish in jail, with courts not showing any urgency in their cases, asking questions of the judiciary becomes a duty. Kamra asked questions the only way he could – by using humour to make a point. Singling him out shows over-touchiness and intolerance of other points of view.
Venugopal’s swiftness –reminiscent of the speed with which the aviation ministry got Kamra banned from several airlines, without a proper enquiry against him – only suggests that not only courts, but the entire system can support you when it wants to and go after you when it doesn’t.
Kamra’s tweets were retweeted thousands of times—will the attorney general now allow all of them to be prosecuted? One can only hope that the courts show more tolerance and broad-mindedness and simply throw out the case.