Topic Of The Day:-“Heavy-Handed Order: On Contempt Law”

The contempt law must not be used, or seen to be used, to stifle dissenting views

The Meghalaya High Court’s order finding the Editor and Publisher of Shillong Times guilty of contempt, and asking them to “sit in a corner” till the rising of the court and imposing a fine of 2 lakh each, is a heavy-handed response to comments in the newspaper on the court’s earlier orders. What makes the order even more unfortunate is the explicit threat to ban the newspaper and jail them if they fail to pay the fine. While courts are indeed empowered to decide whether a publication scandalised or tended to scandalise the judiciary or interfered with the administration of justice, there is no legal provision for an outright ban on it. The origin of thesecontempt proceedings appears to be the State government’s unilateral decision to withdraw certain facilities to retired judges without consulting the court administration. After the matter was not resolved on the administrative side for two months, the court initiated suo motu proceedings and issued some directions. It was because of a news item, accompanied by a commentary on the court’s directions, that the contemnors had incurred the court’s displeasure.

The offending comments appeared to imply that the directions regarding extending facilities, including protocol services and domestic help, and reimbursing communication bills up to 10,000 a month and a mobile phone worth 80,000, to retired judges amounted to “judges judging for themselves”. It is a moot question whether the court ought to have taken umbrage at this remark or ignored it. It would serve the cause of preserving the dignity of the higher judiciary if overzealous comments made by activists or journalists were ignored. In 1999, the Supreme Court had brushed aside some adverse remarks by activists by saying, “the court’s shoulders are broad enough to shrug off their comments.” However, in the case of Patricia Mukhim, the Editor ofShillong Times, the court has made sweeping remarks that the newspaper had always attacked individuals and institutions, had published propaganda calling for bandhs and “was always working against judges and the judicial system”. The defence argued the court should frame specific charges before convicting them for contempt. However, the matter was tried summarily. While it is open to the court to try a case of contempt in a summary manner, the use of personalised views of the publication’s past record to hand down the verdict puts a question mark over the decision-making process. While there may be a need to curb tendentious criticism of the judiciary and self-serving comments on ongoing proceedings in mainstream and social media, there is a compelling case to use the contempt law sparingly, and avoid the impression that it is being used to stifle free speech or dissent. Lenience, not anger, ought to be the primary response of a detached judiciary.


1) imposing

Meaning : grand and impressive in appearance(adj).

Synonyms : appoint

Antonyms : displace

Example : “an imposing 17th-century manor house”

2) explicit

Meaning : stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt(adj).

Synonyms : accurate

Antonyms : careless

Example : “the arrangement had not been made explicit”

3) indeed

Meaning : used to emphasize a statement or response confirming something already suggested.

Synonyms : certainly

Antonyms : doubtfully

Example : “it was not expected to last long, and indeed it took less than three weeks”

4) scandalised

Meaning : shock or horrify (someone) by a real or imagined violation of propriety or morality(v).

Synonyms : defame

Antonyms : compliment

Example : “their lack of manners scandalized their hosts”

5) tended

Meaning : regularly or frequently behave in a particular way or have a certain characteristic(v).

Synonyms : contribute

Antonyms : dislike

Example : “written language tends to be formal”

6) interfered

Meaning : intervene in a situation without invitation or necessity(v).

Synonyms : hinder

Antonyms : advance

Example : “you promised not to interfere”

7) outright

Meaning : wholly and completely(adv).

Synonyms : absolute

Antonyms : imperfect

Example : “logging has been banned outright”

8) contempt

Meaning : the feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration(n).

Synonyms : antipathy

Antonyms : approval

Example : “Pam stared at the girl with total contempt”

9) unilateral

Meaning : (of an action or decision) performed by or affecting only one person, group, or country involved in a situation, without the agreement of another or the others(adj).

Synonyms : independent

Antonyms : multilateral

Example : “unilateral nuclear disarmament”

10) persistent

Meaning : continuing firmly or obstinately in an opinion or course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition(adj).

Synonyms : constant

Antonyms : broken

Example : “one of the government’s most persistent critics”

11) incurred

Meaning : become subject to (something unwelcome or unpleasant) as a result of one’s own behaviour or actions.

Synonyms : acquire

Antonyms : forfeit

Example : “I will pay any expenses incurred”

12) displeasure

Meaning : a feeling of annoyance or disapproval(n).

Synonyms : disapproval

Antonyms : approval

Example : “he started hanging around the local pubs, much to the displeasure of his mother”

13) reimbursing

Meaning : repay (a person who has spent or lost money)(v).

Synonyms : compensate

Antonyms : damage

Example : “the investors should be reimbursed for their losses”

14) overzealous

Meaning : too zealous in one’s attitude or behaviour(adj).

Synonyms : fanatical

Antonyms : rational

Example : “he’s been overzealous in handing out parking tickets”

15) convicting

Meaning : declare (someone) to be guilty of a criminal offence by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge in a court of law.

Synonyms : condemn

Antonyms : release

Example : “the theives were convicted of the robbery”

16) tendentious

Meaning : expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, especially a controversial one(adj).

Synonyms : prejudicial

Example : “a tendentious reading of history”

17) proceedings

Meaning : an event or a series of activities involving a set procedure(n).

Synonyms : archives

Example : “you complete a form to start proceedings”

18) dissent

Meaning : the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held(n).

Synonyms : discord

Antonyms : acceptance

Example : “there was no dissent from this view”

19) detached

Meaning : aloof and objective.

Synonyms : isolated

Antonyms : attached

Example : “he is a detached observer of his own actions”