Court contempt must be limited to disobeying orders


Contempt should be restricted to the disobedience of orders and rulings.
Any failure to obey the court in a dispute that doesn't involve it should alone invite contempt proceedings, observes T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan.

Photograph: Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

A huge amount has been written and said about the Supreme Court decision to hold Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer, guilty of contempt of court. I have only one thing to add, namely that a conviction for contempt is as much permitted in India as capital punishment is.

The contempt provision draws its strength from a Latin term going back 2,000 years -- ipse dixit, which means because 'I say so' or when appropriate because 'someone says so'. Nothing further is required to reach a conclusion of truth.

Judges use it in two ways. One is when they want to strike down something on the grounds that it is the arbitrary view of one person. They say this is ipse dixit, so invalid.

The other is the opposite when they use it for themselves. Judging whether something constitutes contempt of court is the strongest example of this.

If they say it is contempt, it is contempt. That's all there is to it. No proof is needed.

But they are not unique. The use of ipse dixit as an accepted, acceptable, and ubiquitous instrument of finality is widespread.

Not unique

Thus it can be found in certain types of pricing. The best example of this is art.

The initial value of a work of art is what the artist says it is. He holds an exhibition and puts a price sticker on it and that's what the price is.

Even in the case of masterpieces it's what the auctioneer says the reserve price is. Bidding begins there. 'I say this is the price therefore this is the price.'

We can see this problem in newspapers also. The editorial stance of the paper is what the editor says it is because he says so. Right, wrong, and stupid, it does not matter.

Sometimes the editor's view is at variance with what the proprietor thinks. Then, if the differences persist, the editor is shown the door. That's the proprietor saying ipse dixit.

The same thing happens in sports teams also. In cricket, for example, because of ipse dixit, in the 1990s field placing was a well-known form of match-fixing in international cricket. A packed off side and the bowler bowling leg and middle or something else like that.

Many religious doctrines are also perfect examples of ipse dixit. Some religions allow dissent, calling it interpretation. Some don't, saying that the revealed truth is eternal.

You can see this in politics also. If the political party is just the private army of the Supreme Leader, what he or she says is so because he or she says it is so. This is true of most political parties in India and in many autocratic regimes.

We can also see this in families where just one person -- husband/wife or father/mother -- decides what's what or what it will be. Ipse dixit.

Two elements

This phenomenon is a variation on what logicians called self-referential truth. It is a 'truth' derived from a position of authority that's been vested in a person or office.

It can lead to strange formulations of the truth as, say, in the sentence spoken by the boss, 'This sentence is untrue.'

But let that be. That's a different kettle of fish for another time. Here it's enough to say that there are two elements in the ipse dixit problem.

One is when it relates to a fact: The sun will rise in the east regardless of who says so. So anyone can say so and be right.

But there is also the bigger problem that has to do with the contempt law. It's best encapsulated by my favourite paradox, the Barber's or (Bertrand) Russell's Paradox.

The popular example of this is the question 'If the village barber shaves only those who don't shave themselves, who shaves the barber?'

The mathematical equivalent is 'A set that appears to be a member of itself if and only if it is not a member of itself.'

A judge can be judge only if he doesn't judge his or her own case. Thus problems with ipse dixit only arise when this happens.

The intention of the contempt law is unexceptionable. But the ipse dixit power can vitiate the practice of that intention. We don't live in Alice's Wonderland.

In short, contempt should be restricted to the disobedience of orders and rulings.

Any failure to obey the court in a dispute that doesn't involve it should alone invite contempt proceedings.

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