The power of contempt

THE RECENT conviction of Arundhati Roy throws up several questions. What is contempt of court? Should human rights activists run down institutions which are pillars of democracy? Should judges sit in judgment over contempt of court cases? There are many other issues involved in the incident. Without going into any of these questions, it is possible to formulate certain general principles. There is no doubt that the honest and unsolicited help human rights activists render those who are not even aware of their rights is a ray of hope in an otherwise hopelessly unjust and unequal society like ours. But, human rights activists should not run down the institutions because they do not conform to their thinking or fail to come up to the standard of virtue they believe they have come to represent. For, that may evoke doubts about the spirit of dissent and defiance they are trying to build.

It would have been better perhaps if Ms. Roy and some other human rights activists had been more circumspect in their remarks and behaviour. The Supreme Court, good or bad, is an institution. Running it down does not pay in the long run because it is the viability of institutions that differentiates democracy from dictatorship. I personally think the judges should have let her off after expressing their displeasure. They could have said that the court was not in competition with the distinguished writer to make a point or join issue on what constituted the contempt. The

observation of the Chief Justice, S.P. Bharucha, when he was on the Bench during the earlier hearing of the contempt case, was that the court's shoulders were broad enough to shrug off her comments.

I feel sad because the activists looked like indulging in populism when they shouted slogans and offered flowers to Ms. Roy after she had served the one-day sentence. Her own statement that she was not repentant sounded as if she was speaking from the rostrum of a political party. Her

remark that people should judge the quality of judgment is a good slogan. But are the faults in the verdicts of the Supreme Court to be redressed by a referendum?

The press is unhappy with the contempt laws. It is defying them and fighting a battle in its own way. But it does not want to throw the baby with the bathtub. Institutions are the strength of a democratic system. The press wants better, cleaner and braver judges. What it does not indulge in is the denigration of the Judiciary because by doing so the press may damage democracy itself.

But there is another side to the question. What constitutes contempt? A British tabloid once published an inverted photo of two judges of the Appeal Court in England with the caption: Old fools have done it again. There was no contempt action nor any outcry from the bar. One of the judges, however, said in explanation that they were old was a fact and whether they were fools or not was a matter of opinion. This incident is in sharp contrast to the excessive sensitivity judges in India have developed. They have become too protocol-minded. They want beacon lights on their vehicles. In one State, the demand is for bigger cars.

There are many instances where judges have taken umbrage to even a light-hearted remark. Contempt proceedings have been sometimes initiated to satisfy a judge's ego. What it all boils down to is self-aggrandisement, a sense of power. This defeats the very purpose of contempt. Obstructing the administration of justice is certainly contempt but questioning judicial activism is not. Members of Parliament have often complained from several platforms that the Judiciary is occupying the Executive's territory. The principle behind the contempt law is that the Judiciary is an institution essential for maintenance of the rule of law. Any act which undermines confidence in the Judiciary will subvert the rule of law itself.

My purpose is not to cast aspersions on judges or courts. People hurt themselves when they hurl stones at the temple of justice. To hurt the courts is to hurt society. Human rights activists should realise that the denigration of judges can only lead to the lessening of an institution, which provides strength to the democratic system. Judges cannot defend themselves against the abuse hurled at them. But it does not mean they should object to even peccadilloes. The dignity of law cannot be pulled down by slights which can easily be ignored. The more judges join issue on such things, the more they will involve themselves in spectacles which are bound to be messy.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are doing most of the rehabilitation work in Gujarat. That 99 per cent of them are Hindus sustains hope in the otherwise sombre, saffronised State. The State Government, bureaucratic in approach and tainted in thinking, is only putting obstacles in the way of the NGOs. There is not enough relief and rehabilitation from official quarters. The complaint of the riot victims is that they, the Muslims, are getting Rs. 1 lakh each as compensation while the Godhra victims, the Hindus, are given Rs. 2 lakh each.

Everyone is curious to know why the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, did not visit the State after the riots. He did say that what happened in Gujarat was a shame but he should have said sorry to the Muslims. The liberal side of Mr. Vajpayee is less and less visible as the days go by. Is it because of the internal struggle within the BJP or is it because of pressure from the RSS?

People of all religions look up to him for gestures which are above party interests. He is their Prime Minister, not that of the saffronised crowd.People of villages around Nagasnar in Chattisgarh's Bastar district, about whose plight I have written earlier, continue to suffer because of the Government's determination to acquire their land forcibly to build a steel plant.

Houses have been destroyed and the tribals have been beaten up for not giving consent to the acquisition of their lands. A People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) branch of that area said: people including women and old men were subjected to a brutal lathicharge in which scores of women were injured.

Hundreds of villagers were taken into custody. When contacted, the Chief Minister, Ajit Jogi, said these were preventive arrests.

Following reports that the police and the State administration in Bhachau town in Kutch (Gujarat) had let loose a reign of terror on the poor affected by the earthquake, the PUCL's State unit sent a fact-finding team to the area. The communities affected by the police action are mainly Kolis, Khawas and Dalits.

In a statement to the PUCL team, women from the Dungarpura settlement said: "All our houses were destroyed in the earthquake and we had built makeshift houses. The police surrounded us immediately. They told us their superiors had ordered the demolition and that they had orders to shoot if anybody resisted. We have been living in tents for one year. We don't want to leave this place. We have made this place habitable. But the police did not listen. They even beat up a one-year-old child."

Recommended for you