Way back in 1922 , the Bengali author of comic literature Sukumar Ray (father of the famous film maker Satyajit Ray), composed a poem entitled Act 21, lampooning the system of justice in India under British colonial rule. He of course had to invent another country to disguise the object of his satirical barb – by describing it as the birthplace of the Hindu god Shiva. Following are some excerpts:
“In god Shiva’s homeland the rules are quite quirky/ If you slip and fall by err on the road, the police soon comes after to arrest you/ They then take you to a judge who imposes a fine of Rs. 21 on you/….As for those who compose poems, they are placed in a cage/ And made to utter a multiplication table which is hammered into their ears, set at various tunes.”
These verses came to my mind as I read some of the recent judgments passed by our apex court. I earnestly hope that our new honourable Chief Justice of India, D. Y. Chandrachud re-examines these verdicts passed by his colleagues.
To start with, in a long overdue relief to the social activist Gautam Navlakha, the Supreme Court on November 10 allowed him to be shifted from the Taloja jail (where he had been languishing for the last two years, awaiting trial) to house arrest in Navi Mumbai. But while permitting him to enjoy this limited extent of comfort, Justices K.M. Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy imposed a number of conditions that virtually amount to a new form of punishment for him. Navlakha has been directed to pay Rs. 2.4 lakhs to cover the expenses of police deployment at his house. He will also have to pay for the CCTV cameras that would be installed on his house premises. He was also ordered to pay Rs. 3 lakhs as local surety before his transfer to house arrest.
In other words, here is a prisoner (Gautam Navlakha) who is in police custody (under house arrest) and who is being ordered by the judiciary to pay for his own imprisonment ! For a layman like me, uninitiated into the intricate roads, streets and by-lanes of the geography of Indian laws, such a judgment sounds ridiculous. Pardon me, honourable judges, if I have committed the sin of `contempt of court.’ Can the legal luminaries illuminate me about the logic of such a judgment, that offers relief with one hand, and curbs it with the other hand ?
Arbitrary use of the provision of `contempt of court,’ and imposition of fines on petitioners
Another trend of judicial arbitrariness – if I am allowed to use that term – again at the risk of being hauled up for `contempt of court’ – is the frequent tendency of the apex court to haul up social activists and individual complainants on that much abused plea of `contempt of court,’ whenever they exert their right to protest against judgments which they regard as unjust. In order to penalize some complainants, the court often imposes fines on them while dismissing their petitions.
To give an instance, in June, 2022, a Supreme Court bench imposed a fine of Rs. 2 lakhs on a petitioner, accusing him of `wasting the court’s’ time. The petitioner’s plea was regarding a dispute over the control of Maharashtra’s Maratha Vidya Prasarak Samaj.’ Now, one can argue that such a case could have been settled at the lower courts and need not have been brought up before the apex court (which is already burdened by more important cases). But the bench’s dismissal of it as `wasting the court’s time’ and imposition of fine on the petitioner, sets a dangerous precedent. Judges with a particular bent of mind can use this precedent to similarly dismiss public interest litigations by human rights activists as `wasting the court’s time,’ and impose fines on them. This will deter social activists from approaching the courts.
A peculiar judgment
One of the latest judgments delivered by a Supreme Court bench, on November 14, relates to the issue of religious conversions `by use of force, allurement and deception’. Justices M.R. Shah and Hima Kohli, who headed the bench, said: “…everyone has the freedom of conscience to choose a religion. But religious conversion through force or any kind of temptation is a dangerous thing which must be stopped.” The honourable judges were hearing the arguments of the Indian government’s Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, who giving an example of conversion through temptation, said that in tribal areas, the poor and innocent are `allured to convert in exchange of rice, wheat and money.’ May I ask the honourable judges who are so agitated by such conversations through `temptation,’ do they expect the poor tribals to go without rice, wheat and money – basic needs that are denied to them by the state, but are offered by some Christian missionary charity organizations ? Why shouldn’t they convert if they are provided with these essentials in exchange ?
But what is even more astounding of this judgment is that the two eminent judges went beyond their immediate concern – the issue of local conversions – and flagged it as a threat to national security. They said that such conversions posed “a very serious threat to the security of the country.” Now, by what stretch of imagination, can you discover a tribal convert to Christianity, or a Dalit convert to Buddhism, as a threat to national security ?
May I humbly request the two honourable judges to identify those converts which they have in minds as threats to national security ? Are they suspecting other converts – those converting to Islam ? There are cases of Hindu women willingly adopting that religion when marrying Muslims with whom they continue to live in spite of threats from their Hindu parents in the midst of the `love jihad’ propaganda accusing Muslims of abducting Hindu women. Do these converts pose a threat to national security ?
Let me end on a note of request to our new CJI D.Y. Chandrachud to have a fresh relook at those judgments (erratic and erroneous as I find them) that I had referred to, and reverse them if possible.
Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).