“In Indian tradition, judges are imagined as a model of rectitude and detachment more akin to ‘sthitpragya’. ..I am happy to note that the Indian judiciary has been adhering to those highest standards…Hence, it is also incumbent upon the judges to exercise utmost discretion in their utterances in the courtrooms. Indiscreet remarks, even if made with good intention, give space for dubious interpretations to run down the judiciary.”
– SHRI RAM NATH KOVIND, THE PRESIDENT OF INDIA, AT THE VALEDICTORY FUNCTION OF CONSTITUTION DAY CELEBRATIONS ORGANISED BY THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA, New Delhi, November 27, 2021
In the same Constitution Day celebration programme of 2021, in which the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana expressed concern over the “increasing” attacks on the judiciary in the media, Rashtrapati Ram Nath Kovind advised judges to exercise utmost discretion in their courtroom utterances. To ensure judicial independence and functioning of judges free from any fear or favour, everyone should respect the judges and judgements delivered are our Constitutional duties. Precisely for this reason, there is a strict contempt of Court Act to punish a person who either disobeys a court order (civil contempt), or when a person who says or does anything that scandalises or interferes with judicial proceedings and the administration of justice (criminal contempt).
Barely nine months after two topmost Constitutional authorities made remarks regarding the ‘increasing attacks’ on the judiciary and ‘courtroom utterances’ by the judges, we are witnessing a slugfest over attacking judges and their courtroom conduct. Not just in media and social spaces but even in the public discourse, the people gave a call of restraint to the judges after the Udaipur beheading through the Hindu Sankalp March. Many prominent voices called the observations made by the Supreme Court judges while listening to the petition filed by the suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma uncalled for. She was ‘single-handedly’ held responsible for the heinous act of beheading when she was facing a severe threat. Her only crime was questioning a derogatory remark by an Islamist.
If this was not enough, the way dubious self-proclaimed fact-checker Mohammad Zubair got the quick hearings, and subsequent bail further agitated people about the judicial proceedings. The person who accepts that he is not a journalist is treated as a journalist. Even after his confession of receiving money for sharing specific social media posts that led to violence, the SIT formed to investigate the charges has been disbanded. The Hinduphobic character of Zubair has been exposed time and again. He was also caught spreading fake news that was also highly communal. His personal and professional antecedents are under scanner. He did not cooperate in the investigation. Considering his technical acumen and skills, he can tinker with the evidence against him, especially in cyberspace. Zubair had dog-whistled the international Islamist groups to haunt Nupur Sharma is a well-known fact. People are naturally agitated about his ensured release on the same day by the Supreme Court with the operational order.
These two cases, in quick succession, received unprecedented personal remarks against the judges involved in the hearing. A clear indication that ordinary people are no longer bothered about the contempt proceedings.
The contemptuous remark is a new norm despite nine months ago, the President of Bharat cautioned judges about their ‘courtroom utterances’. “Justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done” is the common cliché used in judicial proceedings, and still, people’s perception is contrary to the same. As a system, certain people with particular ideological inclinations, with the help of a battery of lawyers, are seen getting quicker access to the Constitutional Remedies. Honourable judges should decipher this pattern.
There has been a talk about creating a balance between judicial independence and judicial accountability. There is a growing perception that judicial over-activism interferes with the executive and legislative functions. There is a perceived sense of discrimination in some cases. Both these things are incongruous with our Constitutional scheme of things. Ordinary people, social media enthusiasts and political activists must respect the judicial proceedings. Simultaneously, all the stakeholders must ponder on restoring that respect through demonstrated acts of justice done and seen to be done.