[9/18, 17:43] Sekarreporter 1: “Trivials Should Not Be Allowed To Spread As Wild Fire”: Madras HC Closes Suo Motu Criminal Contempt Proceedings Against Actor Suriya [Read Order]
[9/18, 17:43] Sekarreporter 1: Expressing “a fond hope that the entire judicial system that fosters on the faith of the public at large should be the concern of everyone to preserve it in the endeavour to deliver justice”, the Madras High Court on Friday “drew the curtain” on the suo motu contempt proceedings against actor Surya.
Justice S M Subramaniam, judge of the Madras High Court, had written a letter to the Chief Justice of the HC, seeking to initiate criminal contempt action against Tamil actor Suriya over his remarks about judges in the context of the courts allowing the conduct of NEET exam amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In a press statement, Suriya reportedly commented that while judges themselves are holding proceedings via video conferencing, they are asking students to appear for NEET exam without fear.
Chief Justice AP Sahi and Justice Senthil Ramamoorthy observed that the background in which the statement of the cine actor has been taken to be a subject matter of undermining the authority of the Court and Judges and devotion of the Judges towards their duty, is their mode of functioning through virtual hearing during the pandemic, “which may be a sneer”. The bench noted that “before a scoff or a mocking comment is made”, it should also be weighed as to whether it is fair criticism or not. “This too at the instance of one who is stated to be a philanthropist and a self-righteous person dedicated to the cause of public at large”, the bench added.
The division bench reflected that there can be a wide debate on the borderline distinction and hairsplitting opinions to find out the difference between an insult, an unfair criticism, an uninformed opinion, a casual drawing room talk, a sheer party gossip, an irresponsible statement, and that of a constructive dissent, an informed criticism, a healthy open debate that is congenial for an optimistic and positive growth of mankind as against mere accusations and empty words. “The freedom of speech to call a spade a spade and to exercise free unrestrained speech are two different dimensions”, said the bench, noting that the right to freedom of speech that includes fair criticism is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution, but the same Constitution also protects and insulates judicial governance from insidious and derogatory comments under Article 215 of the Constitution and the laws made thereunder.
The bench stated that the Madras High Court itself has been continuously functioning to the best of its capacity, including Judges, Judicial Officers and all subordinate staff, who have performed through virtual hearing and now through physical hearing as well, asserting that as many as 42233 cases have come to disposed at the instance of the two seats of the High Court during the pandemic period from 26.3.2020 to 15.9.2020.
“We only wish to point out that the Judiciary was not sitting idle and was itself on trial during this pandemic, where the Judges of the High Court, of the Subordinate Judiciary, the entire staff and all stakeholders have served to the best of the capacity of the institution”, said the bench, adding that this is not self- praise, but to “state our humble performance of duty”.
The bench continued to observe that “any anxiety or sensitivity by way of a public perception should be depicted only after verifying and ascertaining facts or else a distorted version may emerge”- “if you put wrong questions, you are bound to get wrong answers”.
“This is only to inform those within the judicial fraternity, as well as the citizenry at large, that judicial governance under the Constitution has performed no less, may be not to the expectations of those who may have a different opinion about the method of dispensation of justice during these trying times”, asserted the bench.
The bench also took to appreciate the article published on Friday “The Hindu” daily authored by Senior Advocate Sriram Panchu, “where a fairly balanced opinion has been expressed”. Mr. Panchu, in his piece, suggested a forum for moderating dialogue on the freedom of speech and expression between the leaders of the lawyer, journalist, judge communities, where “concerns and apprehensions can be discussed between them, all of whom want the best for the country and its institutions and people”. “What could then emerge is a clear set of guidelines, of what is acceptable and what is not”, he said.
The bench proceeded to caution that the reliability of sources of information should always be observed when people occupying a public space speak on issues that deserve to be based on ground realities, or else any statement bereft of foundational facts may be fraught with a danger of spreading prejudices and adding to the ignorance of the public at large. It said that speculations and narratives with embellishments may be a form of advertisement, but it should not be an off the cuff depiction. “This unnecessarily results in relentless interrogation on platforms with accusations of over-sensitiveness, even though an opinion expressed genuinely might have a grain of truth in it”, it explained.
The bench was of the view that while the etymology of a word displays the meaning which it seeks to convey, its usage in a particular form with a particular intent is capable of giving it a different meaning, and many of the words in all languages do convey meanings which are at times completely divergent. “Nonetheless, an individual while using a particular word or a sentence may be intending to convey something that may be capable of being received by another and understood in a different form. The intention behind the oration, depiction, or diction can be fundamentally stated to be other than what has been said, but for that it has to be gauged on logic, reason and commonality of its acceptance in general. Expression, therefore, has its own vitality and its own dynamics, which plays between two ends of being expressed and being understood”, opined the court.
Conceding that a language which may, might be perfectly proper if uttered in a temperate manner, be grossly improper if uttered in a different manner, and that what may appear to be disrespectful may also be short of insult, and may be touching the borders of criticism, the bench expressed that a reasonable precaution has to be taken in matters of public affairs, particularly Courts, Judges and their functioning, where fair and temperate criticism should not be contemptuous.
“A statement made in exuberance may bring about a trial and, therefore, in view of the peculiar status on which this institution is pedestalled under the Constitution, it would be prudent on the part of the individuals to carefully frame their minds and express themselves that may not cross the borders of any fair and just criticism. On the other hand, it is not the job of a constitutional Court to use a sledgehammer for avoidance of something which can be perceived to be not capable of even being propped up as a contempt, much less debated to the level of a criminal contempt”, observed the bench.
The bench found that the utterances by the cine actor may have been absolutely unnecessary or even unwarranted, for being ignorant of the manner in which the entire judiciary of this State has served the interest of its citizens during this pandemic, and any such statement could have been avoided in a much more sober way, instead of an accusing tone, which though trivial in nature has raised a storm in a tea cup. “A person in public life enjoys a position because of the responsibility with which he conducts himself and not by making other human activities look small for perceptibly no valid reason”, said the bench.
There are moments in history when people are remembered of their contributions towards the human world and the present pandemic, with all its adversities, is an opportunity that may be godsent for all stakeholders in this vast civilization to perform and give to their fellow citizens that is wanting most, instead of standing against each other. It is good to form opinions and dissents to evolve a purer thought, but trivials should not be allowed to spread as if they were wild fire.
However, the bench abstained from making any further observations, noting that the NEET Examinations and the dispute around it was not even a subject matter of the Courts in the State of Tamil Nadu.
Remarking that “a self-righteous person should himself be humble enough to acknowledge the contribution of others”, the bench consigned the proceedings, reminding itself of “the onerous duties depicted how to dispense, what is known as justice”.
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