The Supreme Court issued a contempt notice Friday to the assistant secretary of the Maharashtra Assembly who, in a letter to Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, had questioned him for approaching the top court against the breach of privilege notice and producing before it “confidential” communications from the Speaker and the House Privileges Committee.
Stating that the “intention” of the Assembly officer appeared to be to “intimidate” Goswami because he “approached this Court” and to “threaten him with a penalty for seeking legal remedy”, the bench of Chief Justice of India S A Bobde and Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubra-manian directed that Goswami not be arrested in the privilege matter until further orders.
The bench allowed the Union of India to be impleaded in the matter following a request from senior advocate Harish Salve who appeared for Goswami. It issued notice to the Attorney General, and also appointed senior advocate Arvind Datar as amicus curiae to assist the court in the matter.
The bench was hearing Goswami’s petition challenging the breach of privilege notice to him which followed a motion in the House, accusing him of using derogatory language against Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and NCP chief Sharad Pawar in the coverage of the case relating to the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
After Salve brought to the court’s notice to the October 13 letter from the assembly to Goswami, the bench said the “statements made by Mr. Vilas Athawale, Assistant Secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Mandal Sachivalaya, are unprecedented and tend to interfere in the course of administration of justice. The intention… seems to be to intimidate the petitioner because the petitioner approached this Court and to threaten him with a penalty for seeking legal remedy.”
“The office of Respondent No. 2 would have been well advised to understand that the right to approach this Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India is itself a fundamental right… There is no doubt that if a citizen of India is deterred in any case from approaching this Court in exercise of his right under Article 32 of the Constitution of India, it would amount to a serious and direct interference in the administration of justice in the country,” the bench said.
“We have serious questions about what this letter means and about the intent of its author. We have not seen this in a court like this. You cannot threaten people and say, ‘how dare can you provide assembly notice to the Supreme Court’,” CJI Bobde said.
The bench issued notice to the assembly officer to showcase why action should not be initiated against him for contempt of court, and also asked him to be personally present on the next date of hearing.
“We, therefore, issue notice returnable on 23.11.2020 to Mr. Vilas Athawale, Assistant Secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Mandal Sachivalaya, to show cause why he should not be proceeded against for contempt of this Court in exercise of our powers under Article 129 of the Constitution of India,” it said.
It directed that “in the meanwhile, the petitioner shall not be arrested in pursuance of the present proceedings”.
The court pointed out that though the respondents have been served notices in the proceedings which have been pending for some time, they were yet to make an appearance.
Producing the letter from the assembly officer, Salve said there is only one precedent of this nature from the 1940s — a letter by a prisoner in Nagpur to the Chief Justice. That letter was withheld by the jail authorities and the Court issued contempt.
Urging the court to grant Goswami interim relief, Salve said case after case was being filed against his client. At times, constitutional courts, he said, have to see the reality, not the smokescreen.
“Please protect him from any action in this case… He has been warned, ‘You abused us, you will spend Diwali in jail’,” Salve said.
He also referred to the debate in the assembly regarding a suicide case in which Goswami has been arrested.
He said the Maharashtra Home Minister said on the floor of the House that the “accused” should be taken into custody. He said this was a matter of investigation and political directions cannot dictate it.
Turning to senior advocate A M Singhvi, who appeared for the State of Maharashtra, the CJI said the bench was concerned about the question of access to the court.
The CJI said people cannot be threatened indirectly in this manner by saying how can you produce this in court. “Who are these people? We want an independent counsel who will assist us in this matter,” he said.
Singhvi said he will be exceeding his brief if he says anything on that.
“During the course of hearing, we requested Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, learned Senior Counsel appearing for the State of Maharashtra, to respond to this letter. But he expressed his inability to explain or justify the contents of the aforesaid letter in question since the letter is written by the office of the Respondent No. 2 and the learned Senior Counsel is appearing only for Respondent No. 4 – State of Maharashtra,” the bench noted.
The order also noted that “though the said letter has been sent from the Office of the Secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha Sachivalaya, who is the Respondent No. 2 herein, it has been signed by Mr. Vilas Athawale, Assistant Secretary, Maharashtra Vidhan Mandal Sachivalaya”.
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