India's Top Court is Cracking Down on Critical Jokes, Cartoons and Tweets

The Supreme Court launched a criminal contempt of court against cartoonist Rachita Taneja and stand-up comic Kunal Kamra for posts that criticised it.

Dec 18 2020, 9:52amSnap

In an illustration drawn by Indian cartoonist Rachita Taneja, who is mostly known as ‘Sanitary Panels’ on her social media channels, she drew two stick figures talking to each other. This is how the conversation went:

Person 1: “What’s it like living in India?”
Person 2: “Oh you know, can’t complain.”
Person 1: “That’s good.”
Person 2: “No I mean I literally can’t complain or the government will arrest me.”


In the caption, the 29-year-old wrote, “No dissent allowed in the world’s largest democracy.”

On Friday, Dec. 18, Taneja was one of the two people slapped with criminal contempt of court by the Indian Supreme Court (SC). The charges are based on three cartoon strips drawn by her (one of them below) that criticised the SC. In all three, the top court observed that Taneja insinuated that the SC is biased in its judgments in favour of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

Coincidentally, in a cartoon from August, Taneja had posted a caption, “Just like the government of India, the Supreme Court of India cannot handle criticism.” 

The second Indian citizen the SC has launched a criminal contempt of court against is the prominent stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra. The charges are based on four tweets, in which Kamra appeared to joke about the SC.

One stated, “The Supreme Court of this country is the most Supreme joke of this country,” while in another, he compared a senior SC judge with a flight attendant who only serves champagne to first-class passengers. “...Commoners don’t know if they’ll ever be boarded or seated, let alone served,” he had tweeted.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

The court also observed Kamra’s post that comprised a morphed image of the SC with a hoisted flag coloured orange. The colour is associated with the BJP. 

The order was delivered on the basis of a slew of contempt of court petitions filed against the two. Criminal contempt of court can be charged on (a) words, written or spoken, signs and actions that scandalises or lowers any court’s authority, (b) interference with any judicial proceeding and (c) obstruction of the administration of justice. Convictions can lead to imprisonment of up to six months and/or a fine of up to INR 2,000 (US $27). 

Kamra and Taneja have been given six weeks to explain why contempt actions shouldn't be levelled against them for “scandalising the judiciary.” The SC, however, allowed them to not appear at the court in person. 

On Nov. 12, Attorney General KK Venugopal had allowed initiating contempt of court proceedings against Kamra. He had called his tweets “not only in bad taste but clearly [crossing] the line between humour and contempt of the court.”


In response, Kamra, on Nov. 13, wrote an open letter to the SC and said, “I don’t intend to retract my tweets or apologise for them. I believe they speak for themselves.” He had added that before the SC found the tweets in contempt of court, the judges could have “a small laugh” at his tweets.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

A plea against Taneja is seeking for her to be restrained from putting up posts that “scandalise and undermine the authority of the top court.”

The criminal contempt of court comes after the Central Bureau of Investigation booked 16 people last month for posting "defamatory" content on social media. A bench at a high court in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh had remarked that the content posted by these individuals was “perilous to democracy and amounted to an attack on the judiciary.” “If some ordinary person makes any comment against the government, cases are promptly registered against such persons,” it stated. 

The SC judges have come under public scrutiny and criticism in the recent past, most infamously for saying that millions of migrants who were rendered jobless and homeless during the lockdown couldn’t be helped. In August this year, the SC held one of its own lawyers in contempt of court for questioning the judiciary.

Ironically, last year, the SC had recognised dissent as a “symbol of a vibrant democracy.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.


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