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Contempt or Dignity - What Actually Concerns the Court?

- Yash Jain, New Law College, Bharati Vidyapeeth, Pune

In the past few days, the contempt case against Prashant Bhushan is in public attention. This case filed against him is related to contempt of court for the statement made by him against the judiciary twice within two days. The 1st statement was related to the undeclared emergency with the role of Supreme Court and last four Chief Justices of India and against the present Chief Justice of India related to his driving of bike without mask during the Covid -19 in Nagpur, Maharashtra.The Supreme Court then took Suo Moto cognizance against Prashant Bhushan. Many people in our country are unaware about the Contempt of Court.

The definition of Contempt of Court is defined under Section 2 of The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. It is codified in Civil contempt and criminal contempt. The Civil contempt means when any person shows his wilful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court and the Criminal contempt means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act. The petitions for the contempt of court are mainly heard in Supreme Court of India as it is the apex court of the country.

The concept of Contempt of Court is prevalent since the times of kings and queens. There were cases filed when India was ruled by the Britishers, there were laws formulated by them for the working of the society and he was not able to look after all the disputes that came to him, so the king assigned some persons to perform this duty, so that he could have time for other work so that’s why the courts came into the existence. There were some guidelines to the assigned persons to follow some rules while hearing any dispute or any matter or any judgement given by them in the same judgement given by king. Though there were some disputes which were heard by the king when he wanted. As the king’s judgement could not be disobeyed as the same order was passed for the judgement given for any result of hearing by the professionals and if anybody disobeys, say anything wrong or does not follow the order to be held liable for the contempt. During the king rule the punishment for contempt of court were harsh as they were provided to set an example so that other person may never try to do the same act again or harm any respected member of the judiciary or harm the image of the High Court or Supreme Court. During that time, like in 1634, a person named James Williamson threw a stone on Judges on the bench, the punishment given was that his right hand was cut off and then his hand was fixed at the entrance of the gate of the court as an example so that any other person may not try this type of act against a judge.

There have been changes in the laws of the Contempt of Court as the first Act was introduced in the year 1926 during the British Rule as it was Act No. 12 of 1926. The Contempt of Court Act, 1926 was repealed by the Contempt of Court Act, 1952. After the commencement of the act of 1952, there were many changes made in the act and the final act which is prevalent till today is Contempt of Court Act, 1971. This act was passed to protect the judiciary and the judges against any of the outrageous acts of the people or the any statement made by any advocate against the judge or judiciary. As the punishment in the earlier times were so rigorous like cutting hands or other harsh punishment but under the new act under Section 12 of the act the punishment is defined and the punishment is not as severe as they were during the earlier times. Presently the punishment is simple imprisonment for a term which may extend upto 6 months, or fine which may extend upto two thousand rupees, or both. The contempt of court can be avoided when a person has fairly and accurately reported the proceedings of the judiciary to the press and has also provided a fair criticism of any judicial order passed by the courts. After 2006, the truth reported also became an exception to the contempt of court when the act was amended and truth was added.

During the month of June, there came the case of Prashant Bhushan. Earlier there had been cases after the enactment of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Some of the important cases other than Prashant Bhushan case are – 

M.B. SANGHI, ADVOCATE v. HIGH COURT OF PUNJAB AND HARYANA–In this case the plaintiff was representing the plaintiff in civil suit titled Hari Ram v. Municipal Committee. During a proceeding, the plaintiff prayed for ex – parte ad interim order but the court declined his request. During the case was in motion and some of the filing of documents was to be done an ex parte ad interim order was asked by respondent and it was provided to them. Then the plaintiff asked the judge whether he is a sitting judge or chairperson of the Municipal Committee. Then the learned judge filed the case of contempt of court against the plaintiff in High Court. The judgement came in favour of the judge as the Punjab and Haryana High Court found the plaintiff guilty of contempt of court under Section 2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Then the plaintiff challenged the order in Supreme Court but the Supreme Court dismissed the petition after reading the order given by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. 

•INDIAN AIRPORTS EMPLOYEES UNION v. RANJAN CHATTERJEE & ANOTHER [AIR 1999 SC 880] – In this case there was an order, which was given by Supreme Court in the case of AIR INDIA Statutory Corporation Etc. v. United Labour Union and Ors., in which it was held that "consequent upon the abolition of the contract labour system with effect from 9.12.1976, the appellants were entitled, in the light of the above judgment in AIR INDIA case. In the cases argued before them were mainly related to 6 employees which were Elizabeth D\'Souza, Nagubai Kurade, Shoba Babu Gurav, Laxmi Babu Mirikar, Dwarkabai Arke and Vishravathi Waghmare,  who were working as sweepers in Car Parking Area of Bombay International Airport and there came a notification of abolishing contract labour. They claim that inasmuch as the benefit given to them by the Supreme Court in its judgment above-mentioned, has not been granted, the respondents have committed Civil Contempt so they filed the case. The judgement came into this case was that the workers were following the orders and notification, which they had received earlier, and cannot be said to amount to wilful disobedience of the Court, so the petition was dismissed by the court. 

In the year 2020, June there came the case of Prashant Bhushan. There was a Suo Moto Contempt Petition (Criminal) No. 1 of 2020. This petition came after the comment made by Mr. Prashant Bhushan against the CJI driving motorbike in his home town. The comment was tweeted by him on twitter. So after the hearings the decision came against the Mr. Prashant Bhushan as he was held guilty of contempt of court. But after the decision came there the Attorney General of India asked SC to let Mr. Prashant Bhushan off the hook, and then the SC asked him to provide an apology but he refused. Consequently, they gave the order that he shall pay the fine of Rs. 1, which he has to submit to the court in 15 days. 

As a democratic country, we will have to understand that the broader right of a citizen to criticize the systemic inadequacies is in the larger public interest. The Supreme Court time and again has reminded that the power of contempt should not be used mechanically. The object of contempt proceedings is not to afford protection to Judges personally and maintain dignity of authority and position from imputations to which they may be exposed as individuals. It deliberates protection to the public whose interests would be very much affected, if by the act or conduct of any party, the authority of the court is lowered and the sense of confidence that people have in the administration of justice is impaired. Hence, Indian Courts and its judiciary should strike a perfect balance between the laws of contempt of court and the fundamental freedom of speech. Courts should be ready to listen to the criticism and not act out of anguish.


1.PTI, ‘Prashant Bhushan contempt case: Chronology of events’ The Indian Express (New Delhi, 31 August, 2020)
2.‘Object of Law of Contempt’ (Law Teacher, 3 June 2019) < > accessed on 09 September 2020
3.(India Code) < 3_00 005_197170_1517807319029&sectionId=21665&sectionno=12&orderno=12> accessed on 09 September 2020
4.K. Venkataramanan, ‘The Hindu Explains | What is contempt of court?’ (The Hindu, 02 August 2020) <https:/ / > accessed on 09 September 2020.
7.AIR INDIA Statutory Corporation Etc. v. United Labour Union and Ors. [AIR 1997 SC 645]
8.Suo Moto Contempt Petition (Criminal) No. 1 of 2020. In Re: Prashant Bhushan and Ors
9.Aanchal Dahiya, Contempt Of Court: A Fulcrum of Court- Dignity and Freedom of Speech, <> accessed on 10 September 2020.