Judicial overreaction

December 25, 2015 12:43 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:00 pm IST

The > initiation of criminal contempt proceedings against Booker Prize-winning writer Arundhati Roy by the Bombay High Court appears to be an excessive reaction to adverse comment. Judges are expected to be uninfluenced by occasional criticism relating to their judicial orders, especially by journalists and writers who are not parties before them. It behoves the superior judiciary to ignore remarks on court proceedings and orders made out of activist zeal. In times when both mainstream and social media are full of observers, critics, commentators and detractors, courts ought not to be unduly sensitive to outspoken critics, subject of course to the rule that the criticism is fair and does not attribute motives to judges or malice to judicial functioning. Ms. Roy is no stranger to the long arm of the court’s contempt jurisdiction. The Supreme Court sentenced her to one day in prison for criminal contempt for ‘scandalising the judiciary’ through some remarks in 2002. A few years earlier, in 1999, the Supreme Court decided to be lenient towards her and her associates in the Narmada Bachao Andolan for their comments on court orders. “[T]he court’s shoulders are broad enough to shrug off their comments,” the Bench had remarked then, in a measure of how the court’s dignity is better served if it takes routine criticism in its stride and moves only against vicious and tendentious remarks or actions that bring the judiciary into disrepute or ridicule.

Ms. Roy’s article in a magazine relating to the arrest and denial of bail to G.N. Saibaba of Delhi University does not appear entirely to fall under such a category. The political sympathies reflected in the article for the wheelchair-bound lecturer are quite obvious, but it is not possible to discern any wilful contempt for judicial processes in its expression of concern for his freedom, health and well-being. Unfortunately, Justice A.B. Chaudhari sees in the piece a “gameplan” to obtain an order of bail “knowing fully well that the plea was turned down by the Sessions Court as well as a Single Judge of this Court.” While initiating action against Ms. Roy for criminal contempt, he seems to have read too much into an article sharply critical of the government and the police that relates only indirectly to the judiciary in its comparison of instances of those who got bail (Babulal Bajrangi, Maya Kodnani and Amit Shah) and those who did not. The majesty of the court ought to be any judge’s concern, but it is inconceivable why an author’s “nasty” language against the government and the police should be. The conclusion that her article, prima facie , tends to interfere in the administration of justice merely because it appears to argue that Mr. Saibaba is entitled to release is unfortunate. While safeguarding the judiciary’s reputation and dignity, courts of law should not be seen as stifling free comment and suppressing political dissent. The power of contempt should be used sparingly and that too, only against those wilfully subverting justice, and not against critics of the state.

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