The offence of contempt of court is originally meant to penalise any disobedient of disrespectful conduct towards a court of law and its officers that challenges the justice or dignity of the court. However, some fear that it is increasingly being used as an instrument of power by the Indian judiciary to stifle free speech and expression.
The latest to have come under the ambit of this law is cartoonist Rachita Taneja, creator of the popular webcomic Sanitary Panels. On December 1, the Attorney General of India, KK Venugopal, gave his nod to initiate contempt of court proceedings against Taneja. This was in response to a request made by law student Aditya Kashyap, who in his letter mentioned that certain tweets by Taneja violate “the line between humour and contempt”, and “erode the trust in the institution of justice by casting aspersions on the justice delivery mechanism”.
These include a tweet about the Supreme Court (SC) granting bail to Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami in a 2018 abetment to suicide case.
The Attorney General said that this tweet implies that the SC is biased towards the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and is tailoring its judgments to suit the party, reports Live Law.
Another tweet that was singled out refers to the Supreme Court as the “Sanghi Court of India,” with a saffron flag replacing the tricolour.
Venugopal reacted to this comic by saying, “The tweet is clearly calculated to undermine the public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the Supreme Court of India.”
Mentioning other tweets including comics made by Taneja on the Ram Mandir issue, Venugopal wrote, “I am satisfied that each of the tweets with cartoons attached is in contempt of the Supreme Court of India, hence I grant my consent.”
Earlier this year, activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan and comedian Kunal Kamra also attracted wrath for trying to bring attention to the Supreme Court’s role in cracking down on free speech and civil liberties in India. In response to Kamra’s tweets, the Attorney General had noted, “I find that today people believe that they can boldly and brazenly condemn the Supreme Court of India and its judges by exercising what they believe is their freedom of speech. But under the Constitution, the freedom of speech is subject to the law of contempt.”
Kamra had refused to apologise for criticising the Arnab Goswami ruling, saying, “All that I tweeted was from my view of the Supreme Court of India giving a partial decision in favour of a Prime Time Loudspeaker… I don’t intend to retract my tweets or apologise for them. I believe they speak for themselves.”
Taneja is possibly the first smaller creator who has found herself facing similar proceedings due to the tweets she put out. While both Bhushan and Kamra have close to 2 million followers each on Twitter, Taneja’s account @sanitarypanels only has around 17,000 in comparison.
In Taneja’s own words, Sanitary Panels is a feminist webcomic commenting on politics, society and culture. She draws to “question those in power, start conversations, and support activists”. Using stick figures and simplistic illustrations, her art addresses issues of social justice and talks about politics in a way that’s easy to understand and relate to. When it isn’t being flagged for potential contempt of court, her art initiates discourse between supporters and dissidents of the government in the comments section.
Creators like Taneja make use of social media platforms to educate and inform audiences about what’s going on in the country. In reaction to the court proceedings, other artists have come out in her support.
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