A group of 659 artists, illustrators and other members of the creative community have released a statement demanding that the Supreme Court should drop the contempt proceedings initiated against Rachita Taneja, creator of webcomic Sanitary Panels. They said the “authoritarian action” against the cartoonist was an attack on her right to freedom of speech and expression and, by extension, an attack on all of them.

On December 1, Attorney General KK Venugopal had granted consent to a law student to initiate contempt of court proceedings against the cartoonist over drawings that deal with the bail plea hearing of Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami. The case relates to two of Taneja’s tweets criticising the court for granting interim relief to the television anchor. Venugopal said her tweets were not just an “audacious assault and insult to the institution”, but also made a “clear implication” that the Supreme Court is biased towards the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. On December 7, the law student, Aditya Kashyap, filed a petition in the court against Taneja in the case.

In a statement drafted by artists collective Drawing Resistance, members of the creative community said the action against Taneja fits into a larger pattern where criminal contempt proceedings are being initiated against dissenters, including advocate Prashant Bhushan and comedian Kunal Kamra. They said it “revealed a desire to censor those who are outspoken” against the ruling dispensation.

“This misuse of law undermines the fundamental rights of anyone raising questions,” the statement added. “The Supreme Court should be protecting the rights of citizens to do so, instead it is creating an atmosphere of fear in which anything can be deemed contempt of court.”

The statement added:

We are compelled as artists to raise questions about the social and political context we live in, which includes the functioning of the Supreme Court – as Rachita has done in her work. Art, and especially cartooning, has had a relationship with society which is rooted in the possibilities of creative and critical debate. Rachita Taneja’s art practice is situated in a long tradition of cartooning which has kept alive this culture of debate and dialogue on contemporary governance, court cases and anti-people policies through peaceful and creative means.    

— Drawing Resistance

The artists said they believed the government and the judiciary should be capable of accepting criticism and responding to it “in a spirit of self-assessment and self-reflection rather than pouncing on it and stifling it”. This power of art, they said, was crucial in keeping India “from slipping into becoming a servile citizenry”.

“We demand that these proceedings against Sanitary Panels be dropped, and that the Court instead uphold debate, dissent and dialogue which are at the heart of any democracy,” the statement said. “Such authoritarian actions are unacceptable to us as artists and members of the creative community of India.”

Contempt of court

In the past few months, there have been several instances when contempt of court proceedings have been initiated against eminent personalities, prompting debate about the perceived partiality of the Supreme Court.

On November 12, Venugopal had given his consent to begin contempt proceedings against comedian Kunal Kamra. He had also spoken out against the Supreme Court granting bail to Goswami. Less than 10 days later, the attorney general gave approval for fresh proceedings against the comedian for a tweet directed at Chief Justice of India SA Bobde.

Prashant Bhushan, on the other hand, recently faced a contempt case in relation to his tweets about the judiciary. In one tweet, he made a remark about an undeclared emergency and the role of the Supreme Court and last four chief justices of India. The second tweet was about Chief Justice SA Bobde trying a Harley Davidson superbike in his hometown Nagpur during the coronavirus outbreak.

In one case, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra held Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt on August 14 and ordered him to either pay Re 1 as fine or spend three years in jail.

The advocate is also faced another contempt case related to an interview he gave to the Tehelka magazine in 2009. In the interview, he had made allegations of corruption in the Supreme Court and said that half of the previous 16 chief justices were corrupt.

Also read:

  1. Contempt of court: Where does the line lie between criticising an institution and humiliating it?
  2. Contempt cases: Prosecuting comedians and cartoonists is no laughing matter