The Supreme Court late on Tuesday clarified that a suo motu criminal contempt petition was inadvertently listed on its website against journalist Rajdeep Sardesai and the process was on to rectify it.
This case was registered over Sardesai’s tweets criticising the apex court’s decision against activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan last year, despite attorney general KK Venugopal denying permission to initiate contempt over the same tweets five months ago.
“This is in context with news item being flashed in some news channels about initiating suo motu criminal contempt proceeding against Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai by Supreme court, it is made clear that no such proceeding has been initiated against Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai. However status shown at Supreme Court website vide case no. SMC (Crl) 02/2021 has been placed inadvertently. Appropriate action to rectify the same is under process,” the court said in a statement.
The website showed that a petition by law student Aastha Khurana was converted into a suo motu (on its own) criminal contempt plea on February 13 and the Supreme Court registry informed Khurana’s lawyer Omprakash Ajitsingh Parihar of the development on Tuesday. No date was indicated for hearing the petition.
Parihar questioned how such an error could take place. “We received the message from the Supreme Court about the listing of our case and even the website is showing so.”
The petition filed by Khurana alleged that Sardesai’s comments will cause disrespect to the Supreme Court in the minds of citizens.
“Alleged contemnor being an Indian news anchor is a well-known personality and various people take his statement as true and correct, therefore his statement on the top judicial body of this country indicates a threat to the society which will lead to no trust on the judiciary,” the petition read.
When contacted, Sardesai on Tuesday said he did not wish to comment at this stage.
The offence of criminal contempt carries a punishment of up to six months in prison or a fine up to ₹2,000 or both.
The law student first filed the contempt plea under Article 129 of the Constitution on September 21. At the time, Venugopal refused consent to initiate contempt, calling his tweets “trifling remarks”.
“The reputation of the Supreme Court as one of the great pillars of our democracy has been built assiduously over the last 70 years. Trifling remarks and mere passing criticism though perhaps distasteful are unlikely to tarnish the image of the institution,” Venugopal wrote in his response to the petition last year.
The tweets by Sardesai were not of a serious nature so as to undermine the majesty of the court or lower its stature in the minds of the public, the Centre’s top law officer said.
Under section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act and Rule 3 of Rules to Regulate Proceedings for Contempt of Supreme Court, the consent of the AG or the solicitor general is required before the apex court can hear a criminal contempt petition filed by a private individual.
In her petition, Khurana included tweets by Sardesai criticising the top court’s decision to convict Bhushan for contempt and impose a fine of Re 1.
The first tweet by Sardesai, as quoted in the petition, said, “Prashant Bhushan held guilty of contempt by Supreme Court, sentence to be pronounced on August 20. This even as habeas corpus petitions of those detained in Kashmir for more than a year remain pending.”
The second tweet, as per the petition, said, “Re 1 token fine imposed by SC on Prashant Bhushan in contempt case. If he doesn’t pay it, then 3 months jail sentence. Clearly, court looking to wriggle out of an embarrassment of its own making.”
Khurana referred to older tweets by Sardesai on former top court judge Arun Mishra, who headed the bench hearing the Bhushan case, She also reproduced an earlier tweet against former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.
“All these actions of the alleged contemnor clearly show that he has no respect towards the Supreme Court of India and he is trying to defame this court by doing such type of tweets,” the petition read.
On August 31, the SC directed Bhushan to pay a fine of Re 1 for two tweets against the CJI and the apex court. “It is not expected of a person who is a part of the system of administration of justice and who owes a duty to the said system, to make such tweets which are capable of shaking the confidence of general public,” the judgment read.
Venugopal, who appeared in his personal capacity at the court’s request, asked the court not to punish Bhushan and let him off with a reprimand. That case was also registered suo motu by the top court on a petition that didn’t have the consent of the attorney general.