There are some who believe that an attack on judges is an attack on the institution itself.
Supreme Court judges seem to have a mixed view about what is said on social media. They have often faulted social media of being a pliant tool at the hands of forces who want to “villainise” judges, launch personal attacks and troll them for their work. There are some who believe that an attack on judges is an attack on the institution itself. The government has rushed to support the court.
In his Constitution Day speech in November 2021, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana drew attention on the “attacks on the judiciary in the media, particularly social media”.
“Physical attacks on judicial officers are on the rise. Then there are attacks on the judiciary in the media, particularly social media. These attacks appear to be sponsored and synchronised. The law enforcing agencies, particularly the Central agencies, need to deal with such malicious attacks effectively. The governments are expected to create a secure environment so that the judges and judicial officers can function fearlessly,” the CJI exhorted.
‘A robust pillar’
The very next month, in December 2021, the Chief Justice, speaking at the RedInk Awards in the Mumbai Press Club, emphasised that “the judiciary is a robust pillar”. But the top judge said the “recent trend to sermonise about judgments and villainise judges needs to be checked”.
The refrain about the use of social media to attack judiciary can be found in the annals of 2019 when Justice (retired) Arun Mishra said a concerted campaign was on in the social media to “malign” him. He was at the time heading a Bench which was re-examining Justice Mishra’s own judgment on the grant of compensation under Section 24 of the land acquisition law of 2013. Justice Mishra did not recuse from the case. The judge slammed the perceived effort by observing “left to me, I would have taken a decision on the issue, but you maligned a judge and the institution on social media… if a judge is going to be maligned like this, then what is left of the institution? There is nothing personal about any of our judgments”.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had at the time noted that “a pattern has emerged whereby articles and social media posts appear a couple of days before an important hearing is due in the Supreme Court in a bid to influence opinion outside the court about the issue at stake… Your Lordships should consider this”.
In March 2021, the then Minister of Law and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, flagged the government’s concern about “social media campaigns” conducted against individual judges for their judicial opinions and judgments. Mr. Prasad criticised “some people” who file PILs in court, campaign on social media for a particular judgment and later troll judges when the verdict does not meet their expectations. He had termed it “campaign justice”.
Justice (retired) S.A. Bobde, in an interview to The Hindu days before he was sworn in as the Chief Justice of India in 2019, had said “personal attacks on judges are uncalled for and destructive”.
The past years have seen letters from concerned citizens seeking permission from the Attorney General to launch criminal contempt proceedings against persons for Twitter posts aimed at the court.
However, apex court judges like Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, as witnessed in a recent hearing, offers a counter view. He observed that the shoulders of the judges are “broad” enough to bear the barbs shot at them. The judge does his duty and remains faithful to the Constitution.
Moreover, the Supreme Court had championed online speech in its Shreya Singhal judgment by striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. The Section had prescribed imprisonment extending to three years for people who send “menacing” or “grossly offensive” messages through “communication service”. Justice (now retired) Rohinton F. Nariman, who authored the verdict, found the Section ambiguous and an “arbitrary, excessive and disproportionate” invasion on free speech.