The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Thursday held well-known blogger ‘Savukku’ Shankar guilty of criminal contempt for his remarks on the higher judiciary and sentenced him to six months of simple imprisonment. He was directed to be lodged in Madurai Central Prison.
The court had initiated suo motu contempt proceedings against Mr. Shankar following his remarks, “The entire higher judiciary is riddled with corruption,” made to a YouTube channel on July 22. Earlier, the court had framed charges and called upon him to explain, within a week, why he should not be held guilty of scandalising the judiciary by making statements in the public domain.
A Division Bench of Justices G.R. Swaminathan and B. Pugalendhi observed that the conduct of the contemnor deserves to be noted. Nowhere did he express his regret or remorse. He did not offer any apology at all. On the other hand, he asserted that he was justified in making the charged statements. The Bench was of the view that a reading of the charged statements would lead anyone to the conclusion that they are likely to lower the prestige and dignity of courts and judges.
“We would have closed the proceedings if the contemnor had realised his mistake and sincerely apologised. Far from doing so, the contemnor stuck to his position. In fact, his conduct during the last few weeks would constitute acts of contempt on their own,“ the judges said.
Taking note of the fact that criminal contempt had been initiated against him at the High Court principal seat six years ago, the judges said that yet, he made the offending statements.
“The contemnor has reiterated his resolve to continue his attack on the judiciary. He has gone to the extent of stating that he can be sentenced only to a maximum of six months and that after coming out, he will focus all his attention on judges and judiciary. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer stated that ‘Justice fails when Judges quail’. We do not propose to quail. There are occasions when Judges have to be firm and stern. Shrugging off such provocations by stating that we possess broad shoulders would be seen as a sign of weakness. The contemnor has shown himself to be an unrepentant character,” the judges held.
At the hearing, Mr. Shankar contended that the proceedings were bereft of jurisdiction. Relying on the Contempt of Court Rules, he said that since the matter had not been forwarded to the Advocate-General in the first instance, the present proceedings were not maintainable. He submitted that he was concerned with the under-representation of the suppressed classes and the over-representation of Brahmins in the higher judiciary. He claimed his comments were taken out of context and that he had respect for the judiciary. His intention, he said, was only to demand improvement in the system. In his view, he is entitled to highlight public causes and should not be prevented from doing so.
Representing the High Court Registry, senior counsel A.L. Somayaji submitted that under Article 215 of the Constitution, the High Court has inherent power to punish for contempt. The contemnor without directly answering the charges was trying to deflect the attention of the court. The charges pertain to scandalising the judiciary. Instead of expressing his regret for having done so and without offering to take them down from the public domain, the contemnor justified his utterances by taking shelter behind issues of social justice. His comments have the definite tendency to destroy public confidence in the institution of judiciary. They cannot be termed fair criticism, he submitted.
The judges observed that when such suo motu action is taken and when Article 215 of the Constitution is invoked, there is no requirement to obtain the consent of the Advocate-General. The objection of the contemnor cannot hold in view of the order passed by the Chief Justice authorising the Bench to deal with the contempt proceedings.
One of the charges against the contemnor is that he stated that the judges are only for the rich, the monied, the influential and the powerful. “The contemnor is not an unknown individual. We take judicial notice of the fact that he is a well-known YouTuber. He is very active in the social media. His interviews are watched by lakhs of viewers. In the comments section of his interviews, Judges and Courts are portrayed in the most savage terms. It is not an exaggeration to say that the contemnor has the ready ear of thousands of persons in the social media. His words have the effect of lowering the dignity and prestige of this institution,” the judges said.
The contemnor would be well within his rights to highlight specific instances of corruption. Of course, they must be backed by materials. He cannot tar the entire institution with a single brush. “That would be crossing the Lakshman Rekha by a long shot,” the judges observed.
The court directed the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to ensure that the offending interviews and articles are taken down forthwith. Assistant Solicitor-General L. Victoria Gowri was directed to communicate the order for compliance. The court ordered notice to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube returnable by October 14.