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In Re: Arundhati Roy vs Unknown on 6 March, 2002

In Re: Arundhati Roy vs Unknown on 6 March, 2002
Equivalent citations: AIR 2002 SC 1375, 2002 (1) BLJR 811, 2002 CriLJ 1792
Author: Sethi
Bench: G Pattanaik, R Sethi


Sethi, J.

1. ‘Rule of Law’ is the basic rule of governance of any civilised democratic policy. Our Constitutional scheme is based upon the concept of Rule of Law which we have adopted and given to ourselves. Everyone, whether individually or collectively is unquestionably under the supremacy of law. Whoever the person may be, however high he or she is, no-one is above the law notwithstanding how powerful and how rich he or she may be. For achieving the establishment of the rule of law, the Constitution has assigned the special task to the judiciary in the country. It is only through the courts that the rule of law unfolds its contents and establishes its concept. For the judiciary to perform its duties and functions effectively and true to the spirit with which it is sacredly entrusted, the dignity and authority of the courts have to be respected and protected at all costs. After more than half a century of independence, the judiciary in the country is under a constant threat and being endangered from within and without. The need of the time is of restoring confidence amongst the people for the independence of judiciary. Its impartiality and the glory of law has to be maintained, protected and strengthened. The confidence in the courts of justice, which the people possess, cannot, in any way, be allowed to be tarnished, diminished or wiped out by contumacious behavior of any person. The only weapon of protecting itself from the onslaught to the institution is the long hand of contempt of court left in the armoury of judicial repository which, when needed, can reach any neck howsoever high or far away it may be. In Re: Vinay Chandra Mishra (the alleged contemner) this Court reiterated the position of law relating to the powers of contempt and opined that the judiciary is not only the guardian of the rule of law and third pillar but in fact the central pillar of a democratic State. If the judiciary is to perform it duties and functions effectively and true to the spirit with which they are sacredly entrusted to it, the dignity and authority of the courts have to be respected and protected at all costs. Otherwise the very corner-stone of our constitutional scheme will give way and with it will disappear the rule of law and the civilized life in the society. It is for this purpose that the courts are entrusted with extraordinary powers of punishing those who indulge in acts, whether inside or outside the courts, which tend to undermine the authority of law and bring it in disrepute and disrespect by scandalizing it. When the court exercise this power, it does not do so to vindicate the dignity and honour of the individual judge who is personally attacked or scandalised, but to uphold the majesty of the law and of the administration of justice. The foundation of the judiciary is the trust and the confidence of the people in its ability to deliver fearless and impartial justice. When the foundation itself is shaken by acts which tend to create disaffection and disrespect for the authority of the court by creating distrust in its working, the edifice of the judicial system gets eroded.

2. No person can flout the mandate of law of respecting the courts for establishment of rule of law under the cloak of freedoms of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Such a freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by any law. Where a provision, in the law, relating to contempt imposes reasonable restrictions, no citizen can take the liberty of scandalizing the authority of the institution of judiciary. Freedom of speech and expression, so far as they do not contravene the statutory limits as contained in the Contempt of Courts Act, are to prevail without any hindrance. However, it must be remembered that the maintenance of dignity of courts is one of the cardinal principles of rule of law in a democratic set up and any criticism of the judicial institution couched in language that apparently appears to be mere criticism but ultimately results in undermining the dignity of the courts cannot be permitted when found crossed the limits and has to be punished. This Court in In Re: Harijai Singh and Anr. has pointed out that a free and

healthy Press is indispensable to the function of a true democracy but, at the same time, cautioned that the freedom of Press is not absolute, unlimited and unfettered at all times and in all circumstances. Lord Dening in his Book “Road to Justice” observed that Press is the watchdog to see that every trial is conducted fairly, openly and above broad but the watchdog may sometimes break loose and has to be punished for misbehavior. Frankfurther, J. in Pennekamp v. Florida [(1946) 90 Led 1295 at p. 1313] observed:

“If men, including Judges and journalists were angels, there would be no problems of contempt of Court. Angelic Judges would be undisturbed by extraneous influences and angelic journalists would not seek to influence them. The power to punish for contempt, as a means of safeguarding Judges in deciding on behalf of the community as impartially as is given to the lot of men to decide, is not a privilege accorded to Judges. The power to punish for contempt of court is a safeguard not for Judges as persons but for the function which they exercise.”

3. The law of contempt has been enacted to secure public respect and confidence in the judicial process. If such confidence is shaken or broken, the confidence of the common man in the institution of judiciary and democratic set up is likely to be eroded which, if not checked, is sure to be disastrous for the society itself.

4. In this backdrop of the mandate of rule of law, we are called upon to deal with the case of the respondent against whom suo motu contempt proceedings have been initiated by this Court. The respondent, who is stated to be an author of name and fame, has landed herself in the dock of the court, apparently by drifting away from the path on which she was traversing by contributing to the art and literature. During whole of the proceeding she has not shown any repentance or remorse and persistently and consistently tried to justify her action which, prima facie, was found to be contemptuous. To frustrate the present proceedings, the respondent has resorted to all legal tactics and pretences. In view of this we have no option but to deal with the case on its merits, not being influenced by any other factor or circumstance except our commitment to protect the dignity and respect of the institution of judiciary so that the confidence of the common man is not shaken in the institution.

5. The facts of the case, which are not seriously disputed, are that an organisation, namely, Narmada Bachao Andolan filed a petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India being Writ Petition No. 319 of 1994 in this Court. The petitioner was a movement or andolan, whose leaders and members were concerned about the alleged adverse environmental impact of the construction of the sardar Sarovar Reservoir Dam in Gujarat and the far-reaching and tragic consequences of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their ancestral homes that would result from the submerging of vast extents of land, to make up the reservoir. During the pendency of the writ petition this Court passed various order. By one of the order, the Court permitted to increase the height of the dam to RL 85 meters which was resented to and protested by the writ petitioners and others including the respondent herein. The respondent Arundhati Roy, who is not a party to the writ proceedings, published an article entitled “The Greater Common Good” which was published in Outlook Magazine and in some portion of a book written by her. Two judges of this Court, forming the three-judge Bench felt that the comments made by her were, prima facie, a misrepresentation of the proceedings of the court. It
was observed that judicial process and institution cannot be permitted to be scandalised or subjected to contumacious violation in such a blatant manner, it had been done by her. The action of the respondent had caused the court much anguish and when the court expressed its displeasure on the action of the respondent in making distorted writing or manner in which leaders of the petitioner Ms. Medha Patkar and one Dharmadikhari despite giving assurance to the court acted in breach of the injunction, the Court observed:

“We are unhappy at the way the leaders of NBA and Ms. Arundhati Roy have attempted to undermine the dignity of the Court. We expected better behavior from them.”

6. Showing its magnanimity, the Court declared:

“After giving this matter our thoughtful consideration and keeping in view the importance of the issue of resettlement and rehabilitation of the PAFs, which we have been monitoring for the last five years, we are not inclined to initiate proceedings against the petitioner, its leaders or Ms. Arundhati Roy. We are of the opinion, in the largest interest of the issues pending before us, that we need not pursue the matter any further. We, however, hope that what we have said above would serve the purpose and the petitioner and its leaders would hereafter desist from acting in a manner which has the tendency to interfere with the due administration of justice or which violates the injunctions issued by this Court from time to time.”

7. The third learned Judge also recorded his disapproval of the statement made by the respondent herein and others and felt that as the court’s shoulders are broad enough to shrug off their comments and because the focus should not shift from the resettlement and rehabilitation of the oustees, no action in contempt be taken against them.

8. However, after the judgment was pronounced in IA No. 14 of 1999 on 15^th October, 1999 , an incident is stated to have taken place on 30^th December, 2000 regarding which Contempt Petition No. 2 of 2001 was filed by J.R. Parashar, Advocate and others. According to the appellations made in that petition, the respondents named therein, led a huge crowd and held a Dharna in front of this Court and shouted abusive slogans against the court including slogans ascribing lack of integrity and dishonesty to his institution. It was alleged that when the petitioners therein protested, they were attacked and assaulted by the respondents. In the evening on the same day, the respondents are stated to have attacked, abused and assaulted the petitioners. A complaint was stated to have been lodged with the Tilak Marg Police Station on the next day. In for aforesaid contempt proceeding notices were issued to the respondents in response to which they filed separate affidavits. All the three respondents therein admitted that there was a Dharna outside the gates of this Court on 30^th December, 2000 which was organised by Narmada Bachao Andolan and the gathered crowd were persons who lived in the Narmada Valley and were aggrieved by the majority judgment of this Court relating to the building of the dam on the Narmada River. In her affidavit the respondent, amongst other averments, had stated:

“On the grounds the judges of the Supreme Court were too busy, the Chief Justice of India refused to allow a sitting judge to head the judicial enquiry into the Tehelka scandal, even though it involves matters of national security and corruption in the highest places.

Yet when it comes to an absurd, despicable, entirely unsubstantiated petition in which all the three respondents happen to be people who have publicly -though in markedly different ways – questioned the policies of the government and severely criticized a recent judgment of the Supreme Court, the Court displays a disturbing willingness to issue notice.

It indicates a disquieting inclination on the part of the court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent, to harass and intimidate those who disagree with it. By entertaining a petition based on an FIR that even a local police station does not see fit to act upon, the Supreme Court is doing its own reputation and credibility considerable harm.”


9. The assertions in the aforesaid contempt petition attributed that the contemnors shouted abusive slogans against the court including slogans ascribing lack of integrity and dishonesty to the institution undoubtedly made the action of the contemnor gross contemptuous and as such the court had initiated the contempt proceedings by issuing notice. But in view of the denial of the alleged contemnors to the effect that they had never shouted such slogans and used such abusive words as stated in the contempt petition, instead of holding an inquiry and permitting the parties to lead evidence in respect of here respective stand, to find out which version is correct, the court though it fit not to adopt that course and decided to drop the proceedings. But in the very show cause that had been filed by the respondent No. 3, Smt. Arundhati Roy, apart from denying that she had not used any such words as ascribed to her, she had stated in three paragraphs, as quoted earlier which were absolutely not necessary, after denying that she had never uttered the words ascribed to her and those paragraphs having been found prima-facie contemptuous, the suo-motu proceedings had been initiated and notice had been issued. However, the Court felt that respondent No. 3 therein (Arundhati Roy) was found to have, prima facie, committed contempt as she had imputed motives to specific courts for entertaining litigation and passing orders against her. She had accused courts of harassing her as if the judiciary were carrying out a personal vendetta against her. She had brought in matters which were not only not pertinent to the issues to be decided but has drawn uninformed comparisons to make statements about this Court which do not appear to be protected by law relating to fair criticism. It was stated by her in the court that she stood by the comments made by her even if the same are contumacious. For the reason recorded therein, the Court issued notice int he prescribed form to the respondent herein asking her to show cause as to why she should not be proceeded against for contempt for the statements in the offending three paragraphs of her affidavit, reproduced hereinearlier.

10. In her reply affidavit, the respondent has again reiterated what she had stated in her earlier affidavit. It is contended that as a consequence of the Supreme Court judgment the people in the Narmada Valley are likely to lose their homes, their livelihood and their histories and when they came calling on the Supreme Court, they were accused of lowering the dignity of the court which, according to her is

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