Madras High Court: In a suo motu contempt petition against the YouTuber Savukku Shankar, the division bench of G.R. Swaminathan and B. Pugalendhi, JJ. has held Savukku guilty for criminal contempt for proclaiming in the public domain that all Judges are corrupt and dishonest, as it was not a slip of the tongue and he himself asserted, he has been in the field for almost 13 years, and he knows what it means to utter a particular remark. Therefore, the Court sentenced Savukku to six months simple imprisonment.
The Court viewed that Savukku is no stranger to contempt proceedings and for the past six years the criminal contempt initiated against Savukku Shankar has not seen the light of the day which has emboldened him to be more vituperative, reckless and scandalous.
The Court observed that Suvakku is already facing proceedings for criminal contempt because he alleged in the open court that since one of the judges felt offended by his harsh criticism of some of the judgments, the said proceedings have been initiated. It was further observed that no exception can be taken to fair criticism of one’s judgments or judicial functioning and Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, however, this right is not absolute and is subject to Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
The Court observed that Savukku tweeted on 18.07.2022 raising a question as to whom one of the judges met at ‘Alagar Koil’ on a day when the case pertaining to ‘Maridhas’ was being enquired and was clearly suggesting that the outcome of the said case was influenced by the person whom one of the judges allegedly met. Since this innuendo questioned the judicial integrity of the Judiciary, the Registry was directed to take action in the matter.
The Court noted that the Savukku has given an interview to a YouTube Channel, namely, ‘Red Pixon’ on 22.07.2022, thereby trivializing the issue by suggesting that the Judge referred by him in his tweet could have met the temple priest. But in the very same interview, he said that “the entire higher judiciary is riddled with corruption”. Thus, the Court took cognizance of the aforesaid offending statement and issued notice to Savukku calling him to show cause as to why proceedings for criminal contempt should not be taken against him.
The Court noted that Suvakku has admitted that he had made the offending statements., however, he contended that these proceedings are bereft of jurisdiction and as the matter had not been forwarded to the Advocate General in the first instance, the present proceedings are not maintainable as per Rule 8 of the Contempt of Court Rules, 1975.
Suvakku further claimed to be deeply concerned with the under-representation of the suppressed classes and the over-representation of brahmins in higher judiciary and is entitled to highlight public causes and that he should not be prevented from doing so, but the Court held that would not amount to a mitigating circumstance at all.
The Court observed that “Section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 enables the High Court to take action on its own Motion and when such suo motu action is taken and Article 215 of the Constitution is invoked, there is no requirement to obtain the consent of the Advocate General”.
The Court also viewed that the statement that “the entire higher judiciary is riddled with corruption” was the subject matter of the show cause notice, and do not require a forensic mind to conclude that they are ex-facie scandalous and to denigrate and deride the institution of judiciary, and further applied the legal maxim “res ipsa loquitor” i.e. the thing speaks for itself, on this statement. It was further viewed that “Contemnor would be well within his rights to highlight specific instances of corruption., but they must be backed by materials. He cannot tar the entire institution with a single brush, as that would be crossing the lakshman rekha by a long shot”.
The Court took also note of the derogatory statement made by Savukku that “some District Judges appoint good looking widows and utilize their services”, and observed that, “this use of general and sweeping expressions is offensive and falls foul of law, however, making specific allegations based on prima facie evidence and in good faith would definitely fall within the ambit of the right to freedom of speech and expression”, and observed that the offending statements made by Savukku fall under criminal contempt of the highest degree as it portrays the entire institution of higher judiciary as corrupt.
The Court further noted that Savukku has not spared even the Supreme Court and its Judges and observed that “the contribution of the Apex Court is unparalleled. All its Judges are entitled to the highest respect and remarks impinging on their dignity cannot be casually made”
Moreover, Section 22 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 states that the provisions of the Act shall be in addition to, and not in derogation of, the provisions of any other law relating to contempt of Courts and Article 215 of the Constitution declares that every High Court shall be a Court of record and shall have all the powers of such a Court including the power to punish for contempt of itself.
The Court took note of the ruling in Arundhati Roy, In Re, (2002) 3 SCC 343, wherein the Court held that “all citizens cannot be permitted to comment upon the conduct of the courts in the name of fair criticism which, if not checked, would destroy the institution itself”. Further, it noted in Prashant Bhushan, In re (Contempt Matter), (2021) 1 SCC 745, the Court held “that the power of the court to initiate contempt is not in any manner limited by the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971“.
The Court also noted that Savukku has also stated that Judges are only for the rich and the powerful and observed that he is not an unknown individual and is a well-known YouTuber watched by lakhs of viewers. In the comments section of his interviews, Judges and Courts are portrayed in the most savage terms and his words have the effect of lowering dignity and prestige of Judiciary.
Moreover, the Court on the issue of whether the same judge who initiated the proceedings could have been a part of the Bench, observed that even when contempt is committed in the presence of a Judge concerned, he can still hear the matter if the contempt case is assigned to him or her by the Chief Justice.
The Court viewed that Savukku has neither expressed any regret nor offer any apology and has asserted that he was justified in making such derogatory statements. Further, a plain reading of these statements would lead anyone to the conclusion that they are likely to lower the prestige and dignity of courts and judges. Therefore, the Court holds that Savukku is guilty of criminal contempt and placed reliance on the principles set out by the Division Bench in the decision W. Peter Ramesh Kumar, In re, 2016 SCC OnLine Mad 1322, and sentenced him to six months simple imprisonment.
[The Registrar v Savukku Shankar, Suo Motu Contempt Petition 2022 SCC OnLine Mad 4542, decided on 15.09.2022]
Advocates who appeared in this case:
For Registry: Senior Advocate A.L.Somayaji
Advocate N. Mohideen Basha
For Respondent No.1: Contemnor in-person
For Respondent No.5: Asst. Solicitor General of India L.Victoria Gowri,