Comedians, Criticism & Contempt of Court
Recently, Attorney-General KK Venugopal granted consent to initiate contempt of court proceedings against Rachita Taneja, a comic artist well known as Sanitary Panels. Her comics, which featured stick figure depictions of Arnab Goswami, the Supreme Court and the Bhartiya Janata Party, were labelled as an “audacious assault” on the Supreme Court of India. A few days ago, noted lawyer Prashant Bhushan and comedian Kunal Kamra had faced similar charges after posting tweets criticizing the Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and the Supreme Court respectively. These incidents led many to wonder whether it is valid for judicial institutions to use contempt of court to evade public criticism and crack down on satirical comments, specially when the AG had refused to initiate proceedings against certain individuals who had posted similar content on social media, but were considered ideologically aligned to the ruling party.
According to Indian law, the offence of contempt of court is committed when a person disobeys a court order, or says or does anything that scandalizes, prejudices or interferes with judicial proceedings and the administration of justice. Contempt of Court can be traced back to the British Raj, with the Mayor’s Court of Calcutta being granted the power to discipline people for contempt. The law has been criticized for the restrictions it places on Freedom of Expression, as well as its vague language, which allow for abuse of the law.
Indian social media, specially Twitter, has emerged as a hub of trolling, where users whose opinions are deemed inconsistent with certain ideologies being subjected to threats and attacks. As Agrima Joshua, a comedian who was subjected to abuse and slander, recounts, troll handles are as organized as a “swarm of locusts” that descends on anyone that runs afoul of their opinions. As if rancorous abuse by right wing handles and virulent comments were not enough, Indians, specially artists and comedians whose work is critical of the ruling party, need to ensure that their opinions are considered politically correct. It is indeed strange, if not humorous, that the highest court in the world’s largest democracy sees a satirical tweet as a “gross insinuation against the entirety of the Supreme Court of India.” In my view, the fact that judges are using contempt of court to make themselves immune to criticism by the general populace, is a pressing matter, especially at a time when they have acted in a questionable and rather reckless manner. It must be ensured that that the Supreme Court is not allowed to curb satire and people’s opinions, specially at the behest of the government, as is becoming distinctly noticeable, using a colonial era practice that the English have themselves abolished. Criticism of the judiciary, as well as all other institutions of our supposedly democratic nation, is indispensable for reform, and such decisions by the Attorney-General as well as the Supreme Court undermine the essence of the document they serve to uphold and protect: The Constitution of India.
“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” —Norman Vincent Peale