Chandigarh: The Ludhiana Police Monday arrested a former Punjab Deputy Superintendent of Police, Balwinder Singh Sekhon, and his associate Pradeep Sharma on the orders of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in a contempt case.
Invoking its extraordinary powers under Section 14 of the Contempt of Court Act, a division bench of the high court had ordered their arrest on charges of committing contempt “in the presence and hearing of the court”. The duo has been accused of making disparaging remarks about judges, including “allegations of financial misdemeanour apart from judges facing political pressure”.
The division bench, headed by Justice G.S. Sandhawalia, directed the police to send both to judicial custody and ensure their production before the court on 24 February.
It also directed the central government to remove all material related to the judiciary that was posted by the two on social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and ensure they are not just restricted by geoblocking but are blocked globally.
Sekhon runs an NGO “Main Punjabi Manch” and had unsuccessfully contested the Punjab assembly elections from two constituencies last year.
He sprang into the limelight in 2019 when he was chosen by the then local bodies minister Navjot Singh Sidhu to probe allegations of a real estate scam in Ludhiana against the then food and civil supplies minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu.
In that case, Ashu had accused Sekhon of abusing him in the government and on social media sites. Following this, Sekhon was suspended in 2019 and dismissed from service on the day he was to retire in 2021.
In 2022, Sekhon decided to contest the assembly polls from the same seats as Ashu and Sidhu. The dismissed officer held Sidhu responsible for not standing by him against Ashu.
For the past several months, Sekhon has been speaking openly against high court judges, levelling disparaging remarks at them.
On 15 February, Justice Sandhawalia’s bench, during the resumed hearing of cases related to a multi-crore drug scam, had taken suo motu cognisance of Sekhon’s utterances against the judges and issued him a contempt notice.
The matter was to come up for hearing on 28 March. However, once the 15 February hearing was over, Sekhon and Sharma repeated their comments against the judges outside the court before the media. The same evening, they also gave an interview to a local journalist and continued with their tirade against the judges and their families.
In its order, the high court said that “freedom of speech and expression protected under the Constitution of India is not an unfettered right”.
“As much as there are constitutional rights, there are duties also enshrined upon the citizens of the country,” it added.
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‘With a heavy heart’
The court said that “the continued misconduct of the respondents forced us with a heavy heart to proceed directions and issue contempt notice”.
The respondents, the orders added, “apparently have willingly taken on the Hon’ble high court in order to achieve their personal ends for reasons best known to them”.
“By putting forth material on the social sites, they have not only by visible representation scandalised and lowered the authority of this court and have interfered with the course of judicial proceedings and gone on to obstruct the administration of justice.”
The court noted that “on 15.02.2023, the undersigned bench had issued criminal contempt notice to respondent No.6 (Sekhon), who is a dismissed Deputy Superintendent of Police and whose personal litigation is pending before this High Court in various proceedings”.
“The dismissal was also on the same grounds that he had made unpleasant remarks against the government through the social media while being a member of the disciplined force,” it added.
“However, it had come to our notice that he had been circulating malicious, libelous and derogatory videos pertaining to judicial proceedings, which are conducted by the judges of this court. We are informed that a large number of videos are circulated prior to the listing of the contentious matters before benches,” the bench said.
“Observations are made about how the proceedings are to be conducted and unsubstantiated allegations are levelled regarding the manner in which they might be conducted and also after having been conducted. The said allegations also pertain to raising allegations of financial misdemeanour apart from judges facing political pressure and unfounded reasons which are levelled.”
The bench referred to a 17-minute video where “prior to the court proceedings on 27.01.2023, he (Sekhon) had circulated video on 26.01.2023 referring to more than 10 judges of this court and one sitting judge of the Supreme Court against whom scandalous allegations have been made”.
“Apart from that, he had also given suggestions to the undersigned bench on how to proceed in CWP-20359-2013 (drug cases),” it added.
“Resultantly, prima facie we had come to the opinion that publication on the social media on the platform of YouTube amounts to physical representation which is scandalous and intends to scandalise and lower the authority of this court,” the court said, adding that it also prejudices and causes interference and intends to interfere with the due course of judicial proceedings”.
“It was thereafter also noticed that when the matter was to come up on 15.02.2023, he held another press conference regarding the proceedings which had to be conducted on that date prior in point of time and opined on how the matter should proceed and what is contained in the sealed reports before this court.”
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‘A vicious tirade’
The court order also explains why it ordered the arrest of Sekhon and Sharma.
“Resultantly, after the proceedings were over on 15.02.2023 on account of the fact that he was present in court, we had issued notice of criminal contempt to him under Section 15 of the Act and Mr Balwinder Singh Sekhon had gracefully accepted the same at that point of time. It had been further directed that a copy of the order along with the transcript of the proceedings circulated on 26.01.2023 were to be supplied to him during the course to the day to answer the charge and the matter has been fixed for 28.03.2023.”
“At that point of time, Sh Pardeep Sharma, respondent No.7, who apparently has also been part of the several press conferences and featuring along with Mr Sekhon had put in appearance in an effort to defend Mr Sekhon as to how notice was being issued to him,” the bench said.
The court said “he was informed at that point of time that he was a non entity and if he wishes to file any application to intervene, he could do so”.
“However, he continued to insist that he should be heard, which the undersigned bench felt was not necessary and resultantly, he was marshalled out with the help of Police,” it added.
“The matter, however, did not stop there,” the court said, adding that “apparently, both respondent Nos. 6 and 7 chose to air themselves in open public at the entrance of the court and launched a vicious tirade on the proceedings which had been conducted”.
“In the said video, Mr Sharma stated that some sealed reports had been received in the year 2017 but had not been opened in spite of several benches having changed and none of the judges had the guts to open the said reports and claimed that he should be appointed as a nodal officer so that he could monitor the opening of the said sealed reports.”
Sharma, according to the order, “further stated that he wanted to address the court but was not given opportunity and stated that if it is not done, contempt notice should also be issued to him”.
“He was highly aggrieved that why contempt notice has been issued to his accomplice Balwinder Singh Sekhon.
“He further suggested that the working of this court should be improved. He disparagingly remarked about one of us and the fact that his father was also a chief justice and he also did not have the guts to open the reports. Mr Sekhon then named two senior police officials, due to which the reports had not been opened and he claimed to be a whistleblower and that the bench would wet its pants if the envelopes are opened. It was further commented that the judges have been leashed by a certain set of people.”
The court said the “matter did not stop there as Mr Balwinder Singh Sekhon thereafter never appeared before the court officials to receive the court summons since certain formalities had to be carried out as the copy of the transcript of the video proceedings of 26.01.2023 were to be supplied to him”.
“However, thereafter both of them… along with respondent No.8 — Mr. Baljit Marwaha, channel reporter in Scroll Punjab News Channel — on the next day, further in an effort to tarnish the reputation of this court, uploaded another video of 27.35 minutes,” the court said.
A perusal of the video’s transcript “would go on to show that the judges of this court have been abused to the fullest to the extent that certain words which have been used which we do not wish to put in our order”.
“Personal allegations have been levelled against the bench of this court which was hearing the matter and which had issued the notice. Disparaging remarks have been made as to how judgments are being reserved and written after two months for the purposes of bargaining and buying time.”
The court said “a virtual panchayat is being held whereby abuses are being showered on this court in the proceedings conducted by respondent Nos.6 to 8 in the form of a gatling gun and the fact that the bench does not know the ‘A, B, C’ of law unmindful of the fact that this ‘Temple of Justice’ is adorned by constitutional authorities who are only doing and conducting work in accordance with the oath given to them under the Constitution without fear and favour to anyone”.
“Apart from that, even the family members have not been spared by passing disparaging remarks against them also,” the court added.
“Further, a warning has been sounded that more episodes would be initiated which would be derogatory and they would sharpen their words in future and they would propagate the issue in a big manner and share it in a way that it could not have been dreamt of. It is also brought to our notice that on account of the easy platform-sharing basis under the advanced technology, the said videos have also been put to larger platforms like Facebook,” the court said.
According to the bench, “the loading of such videos on social platforms at international level brings disrepute to the constitutional institution and it amounts to virtually inciting the public against the rule of law”.
“Thus, a gauntlet is being thrown by the said respondents and we do not shrug off our constitutional duties to take it head on,” it added. “It is in such circumstances, we are of the considered opinion that things have come to such a point that we are constrained to issue this notice reaching a view that respondent Nos. 6 and 7 have committed criminal contempt in the presence of the court and are guilty of contempt of Court in its presence and they need to be detained in custody before pending determination of the charge.”
It subsequently said that the Ludhiana Commissioner of Police “shall ensure the arrest of respondent Nos.6 and 7 forthwith keeping in view the provisions of Section 14(4) of the Act and send them to judicial custody and ensure their production before this Bench on 24.02.2023, to answer the charge of contempt noticed in this order”.
It then said “respondent Nos.9 to 11 (Facebook and YouTube) are directed to remove/block/restrict/disable access on a global basis to all such videos/web links/URLs which have been uploaded from IP addresses pertaining to Balwinder Singh Sekhon and Pardeep Sharma pertaining to court proceedings”.
“The said respondents shall also ensure that any other press channel who also has uploaded similar material on the social media platforms at the behest of the said respondent Nos.7 and 8, the same shall also be removed with immediate effect.”
(Edited by Richa Mishra)
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