The Court is the pedestal from where the divine light of justice blankets the whole nation. It is the place of faith. And this is the place where should arise impartiality, independence, and fairness in their crude form. This third pillar of democracy not only supports the democratic structure of the country, but also the faith of each individual, regardless of age, gender, caste, power and so on. While it is believed that justice served must be accepted as it is, people often tend to have varied opinions, disagreeing with the Court or the Judge. This dissent sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, takes the form of contempt.
In Indian legal system, concept of contempt is older than the India herself, but the earlier recorded roots can be traced back to the Regulating Act of 1773. This Act stated that the Mayor’s Court of Calcutta would enjoy the same power as the court of the English Bench to penalize in case of Contempt of Court.
What is the Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court is the act of being defiant or disrespectful to the judiciary institutions. Conducts that amount to contempt of court are:
• disobeying or opposing court’s order
• scandalizing or prejudicing court and it’s proceedings
• interfering with administration of justice
Though the Indian Constitution doesn’t explicitly state the definition of Contempt of Court, it categorises this offence into
Civil and Criminal Contempt.
• Civil Contempt: Section 2(b) of the Contempt of Court Act defines Civil Contempt as “wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order,
writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court”;
• Criminal Contempt: Section 2(c) defines Criminal Contempt as the publication of any matter or the doing of any other act whosoever which,
(i) scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial
(iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration.
A brief history.
In 1926, the first Contempt of Court Act was passed, affirming the power of the High Courts to punish or judge contempt offences committed against the subordinate courts. Further, the Contempt of Court Act of 1952 replaced the previous Act and also expanded the power of penalizing from High Courts to the other courts as well. But, there continued to be disagreeing opinions about the law. Hence, in 1961, a committee was adopted to examine the application of contempt laws. The committee recommended that the proceedings of the Contempt should be initiated on the recommendation of government law officer, unlike the previous legislation that the Court itself can initiate the proceedings. These recommendations were carried forward in the Contempt of Court Act of 1971. And this, 1971 Act, is the current legislation which governs contempt of court in India.
What is dissent?
Dissent can be regarded as “a strong difference of opinion on a particular subject, especially about an official suggestion or plan or a popular belief”. A person in India, is allowed to differ in opinions with other citizens and also those in power and can propagate his belief as his own. Freedom to dissent is one of the most important rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
There is a very thin line between dissent and contempt which often goes blurred. If there’s no freedom without dissent, then contempt is the exploitation of that freedom. But not to forget, if contempt is a punishable offense under Indian law, then free dissent is the right of every man. A democracy without the tolerance for dissent is actually a totalitarian regime, for there’s no greater idea of democracy than free men. “Freemen, in the exercise of free thoughts, will give vent in free speech”.