Styling himself a whistleblower A Shankar, an activist and YouTuber, started a website called savukku.net (a whip), publishing regular articles on alleged corruption by politicians, government employees, journalists and judges. Many of these were without proof or evidence.
Now, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court has taken a tough stand and sentenced him to a six-month jail-term, finding him guilty of criminal contempt. The Court had initiated suo motu proceedings against Shankar, following a remark made to a YouTube channel Red Pix on July 22, whereby he had claimed that the “entire higher judiciary is plagued by corruption.”
“He cannot tar the entire institution with a single brush. That would be crossing the Lakshman Rekha by a long shot. It is not as if the said remark accidentally tumbled out of his mouth,” held a bench of Justices GR Swaminathan and B Pugalendhi. The Court refused Shankar’s request for a suspended sentence till an appeal is filed in the Supreme Court and ruled that Shankar’s statements were scandalous and they “denigrate and deride the institution of judiciary.” The bench further noted that Shankar did not show any regret or tender an apology and ordered that he be immediately taken into custody and lodged at Madurai Central Prison.
“The contemnor has reiterated his resolve to continue his attack on the judiciary. He has gone to the extent of stating that he can be sentenced only to a maximum of six months and that after coming out, he will focus all his attention on judges and judiciary. Justice VR Krishna Iyer stated that ‘Justice fails when Judges quail’. We do not propose to quail. There are occasions when judges have to be firm and stern. Shrugging off such provocations by stating that we possess broad shoulders would be seen as a sign of weakness. The contemnor has shown himself to be an unrepentant character,” the bench held.
Shankar was a former employee of the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption and was suspended for allegedly releasing an audio tape of a DMK minister, who later resigned as a consequence. He was arrested in 2008 in connection to the leak, but was soon released on bail, having been acquitted of all charges in 2017.
As a political commentator, he often publishes details of backroom deals, insinuating wrongdoings. In 2014, the Madras High Court had called for a ban on his site, observing that the “vituperative site” had damaged the reputation of many judges, advocates, as well as IAS and IPS officers.
However, Justice K Chandru, a former judge of the Madras High Court in an opinion piece in Junior Vikatan, a bi-weekly Tamil political magazine, opined: “The courts can enhance the pride of the judiciary only by pardoning people and not punishing them. Invoking powers vested with them just because some people talk ill (about judiciary) is akin to killing a mosquito using a pounder. There is still time. It will be best if the judges come forward voluntarily to withdraw the sentencing awarded to Shankar and releasing him from jail.”
“It is in these circumstances that Savukku Shankar has been punished for his comments made in a YouTube interview by justices GR Swaminathan and N Pugalendhi. Shankar has the opportunity to appeal against this order in the Supreme Court under Section 19. It is shocking that the judges did not invoke the powers vested with them to suspend the sentencing till he (Shankar) goes for an appeal, Else it is just like how police arrest a person over the weekend deliberately to keep him behind the bars for two days. There is not much difference between the two.”
Contempt of court is governed by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Contempt of court is majorly of two types—civil and criminal. Civil contempt means willful disobedience to any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court or willful breach of an undertaking given to a court, whereas criminal contempt means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which:
i. scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or
ii. prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or
iii. interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.
Whistleblowing is all very well, but only valid if it is backed by solid evidence. Now, the courts are literally using the whip to ensure that the entire judiciary is not tarred by the same brush.
—By Shashank Rai and India Legal Bureau