The Big Story: Chilling contempt

The Election Commission of India has made an uncharacteristic demand. It has written to the Centre asking for it to be given contempt powers to act against those who sully its image. The election watchdog wants the contempt of Courts Act 1971 to be amended to empower it to punish anyone being “disobedient or discourteous towards its authority”. The demand seems to have been brought on by the recent controversy fuelled by the Aam Aadmi Party, which claimed that electronic voting machines were rigged and accused election commissioners of playing favourites. But those charges have been dismissed as frivolous and it is worrying that the keeper of our democracy should want an autocratic and outdated law to secure itself.

The contempt law has repeatedly been criticised for being more than the Constitutionally permitted “reasonable restriction” on the freedom of speech and many have argued that it must go. Apart from empowering the court to penalise those who disobey it or obstruct proceedings, it has enigmatic categories of offence such as “scandalising” and “lowering the authority of the court”. What’s more, judging these offences against itself is left entirely to the court’s discretion. In the past, the judiciary has been accused of misusing the provisions, sometimes by courts themselves. The law, together with some instances of its application, paints the picture of a jittery judiciary, arbitrarily shutting down those who dare question it.

Does the Election Commission want to project itself as that kind of institution? Since the 1990s, the commission has reinvented itself as a dynamic, transparent body, watching over polls across the country with a hawk’s eye. At a time of political turbulence, restoring the credibility of elections helped to steady Indian democracy. In the decades since then, this faith in free and fair elections has endured, no matter what the other failings of our political system. When the charges of tampering were raised, the commission responded by inviting political parties to a “hackathon” to test its electronic voting machines. That sounds more like the commission: engaging with criticism and open to public scrutiny. It must preserve that character.

The Big Scroll

Alok Prasanna Kumar writes why the contempt of court law must go.

Abhishek Dey travels to Bhind to test the truth of the electronic voting machine rigging charges.


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