Contempt Of Court or Fear Of Democracy?

Written by Mohit

When you see a lion in a zoo, would you consider it to be a free animal? It depends on whose perspective the situation is viewed. One might say the lion is not free after seeing the metal rods that confine it to a certain territory. Another might say that the lion is free as it is allowed to roar, sleep or eat whenever he desires. This analogy depicts the perfect scenario of the Indian democracy. Just as the lion, citizens are allowed to live as per their desires but within the confinements created by a zoo master, i.e., Public Institutions.

In the past 6 years, India has witnessed the demolition of institutes that were created to keep democracy alive and vibrant, and to safeguard the interests of citizens. Be it RBI, ED, IT, CBI, Media, Police, CAG, IB or Judiciary; aspersions were cast on the ability of these institutes to keep in check those who are in positions of power. On the contrary, these organisations ended up being the puppets of the government. Ironically, these organisations were set up by taxpayer’s money but are now being used to cage citizens. To our dismay, these institutes didn’t just surrender their autonomy but have also shattered the hopes of millions who reposed their trust in them.

The latest institute on its verge of surrendering its autonomy is the Supreme Court of India. At a time when all major institutions have succumbed to the executive powers, the Supreme Court is the only last pillar capable of keeping the government in check. However, particular viewpoints that the Supreme Court has supported in recent years gives an ambiguous impression that the court will comply with the actions of the ruling party at the Center.

When several cases of national importance such as abrogation of Article 370, suspension of constitutional rights in the valley, unlawful detention of CAA protestors, Hate speeches and the riots that followed subsequently are still in a state of limbo, the Supreme Court has either deferred hearing the matter or refused the intervene altogether. The elevation of ex-CJI, Ranjan Gogoi, to Rajya Sabha soon after his tenure shattered all illusions of Supreme Court being independent and uncompromised.

All these instances were in the public domain but talk on these subjects was limited to the four walls of a household out of fear of retribution, until Prashant Bhushan made it a topic for debate.

As expected, the Supreme Court took cognizance and issued a notice for contempt to Prashant Bhushan. It would have been better if the apex court had asked Mr. Bhushan to explain his statements so that all misunderstandings or unfounded fears could be allayed (if any). On the contrary, the court held Prashant Bhushan guilty for contempt of a criminal nature. This requires a serious and open debate- How can the Supreme Court guarantee to safeguard the fundamental rights of citizens when it is easily offended by mild criticism by one of its own? The contempt proceedings against Prashant Bhushan is the death knell for Indian democracy.

Rift within the judiciary for a prolonged period gives the government a perfect excuse to function outside the ambit of the Constitution, arrest dissidents without trial and curb free speech, thus transforming a democratic society into an authoritarian state. Hence, the judiciary must set precedents that give an impression that the institution is committed to protecting the rights of every citizen and function in a just manner.

Constructive criticism, by individual or groups, is an opportunity for the Supreme Court, or for that matter any institution, to reflect on its shortcomings and work to ensure that the faith of people is not lost altogether. Judges have to decide as to how they wish to be perceived in history pages. They could sacrifice their dignity for post-retirement benefits or they could etch themselves in golden words by remaining upright till the very end. In either case, the choice is theirs.

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