Willful disobedience and evil motive should be reckoned before holding in contempt: Calcutta High Court

Contempt being in the nature of quasi-criminal proceedings, the allegations should be strictly construed. The standard of proof to establish contempt, is akin to a criminal proceeding and in the attempt to find an individual in contempt, the court should also take into account the circumstantial evidence and reckon if any mental element was present. This was opined by the Calcutta High Court bench of Thottathil B. Radhakrishnan, C.J. and Shampa Sarkar, J.in the contempt proceedings of Arvind Kumar Newar v S.S. Kothari [CC/35/2020]. The bench put-forth that they must be satisfied about the guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Harsh Vardhan Lodha (hereafter ‘HVL’) continued to hold office as director/chairman in Universal Cables Ltd, Birla Corporation Ltd., Birla Cable Ltd. and Vindhya Telelinks Ltd; HVL participated in the meetings of the Board of Directors of the above companies held on November 5, 2020 November 9, 2020 and November 10, 2020 as director and/or chairman thereof; HVL failed to abide by the directions of the APL Committee dated July 19, 2019, July 30, 2019, July 23, 2020 and July 30, 2020, by which the APL Committee decided not to support the re-appointment of HVL as director in the four companies. HVL failed to abide by the directions of the APL Committee contained in the letters dated 4th/5th November, 2020 issued to the Board of Directors of the said companies.

It was prayed by the petitioners that Rule be issued, directing HVL to show-cause why he should not be sent to prison or suitably dealt with, for wilfully and deliberately violating, disregarding and disobeying the order dated October 1, 2020. Further prayer was made for a declaration that the alleged contumacious acts be declared as unlawful in the eye of law.

The court arrived at the reasoning that in order to punish a contemnor, it has to be established that the disobedience is willful. This requires an assessment of the mind of the alleged contemnors that is, whether the contemnors knowingly intentionally, consciously, calculatedly and deliberately with full knowledge of consequences committed a breach of the order of this Bench. There has to be a calculated action with evil motive. In V.G. Nigam v. Kedar Nath Gupta reported in (1992) 4 SCC 697, the Apex Court held that it would be rather hazardous to impose a sentence for contempt in exercise of contempt jurisdiction on mere probabilities. If the doubt persisted, the alleged contemnors were entitled to have the benefit or advantage of such a doubt having regard to the nature of the proceeding.

The court ruled that “For the purpose of this proceeding, it is sufficient to say that HVL’s participation in the Board meetings cannot be termed as contumacious violation of the order of this court as the willful disobedience has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt and there is a possibility that HVL could continue to hold office on the strength of the votes of public shareholders in exclusion to the votes of the APL Committee and the Promoter and Promoter Groups and PACs. The contempt application against HVL is dismissed.

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