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When two views are possible, the element of wilfulness vanishes as it involves a mental element: Supreme Court

Merely because a subordinate official acted in disregard of an order passed by the Court, a liability cannot be fastened on a higher official in the absence of knowledge as held by the Hon’ble Supreme Court through the learned bench led by Justice M.M. Sundresh in the case of Dr. U.N. Bora, Ex. Chief Executive Officer & Ors. v. Assam Roller Flour Mills Association & Anr. (CRIMINAL APPEAL NO.1967 OF 2009).

The brief facts of the case are that, Writ petitions were filed by the respondent no.1-Association among others before the High Court on the premise that its members purchased the agricultural produce outside the State and thus, no cess is leviable. Rules were struck down leading to the introduction of the Amendment Act, 2000, amending Section 21 of the Act while inserting Section 21A. Section 21A was inserted by the amending Act, 2006 facilitating the Board to levy and collect cess for the marketing committees in the notified market areas in addition to their existing power. This amendment was put into challenge in the batch of writ petitions before the Division Bench of the High Court. The present appeal has been filed against the order of the Division Bench of the High Court finding the appellants guilty of willful disobedience of the order passed in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 5491 of 2001 etc. dated 12.09.2008 in respect to the levy made while upholding Section 21 of the Assam Agricultural Produce Market Act, 1972. Pending the appeal, the first appellant died on 27.02.2017. Taking note of the aforesaid fact, the proceedings as against him were declared as abated by the order of this court dated 07.10.2021.

After the perusal of the facts and arguments the Supreme Court held, “It is the specific case of the appellants that they did not violate the directives of the court. There is no material to either establish their knowledge on the action of their subordinates, or that they acted in collusion with each other. Vicarious liability as a principle cannot be applied to a case of contempt. In our considered view, the entire exercise of the High Court is not warranted and the aggrieved members of the respondent no.1 could have been well advised to seek the alternative remedy open to them including redressal through the committee. In light of the aforesaid discussion, we accordingly set aside the order passed by the High Court on 23.10.2009 in Contempt Case No.401 of 2008. Consequently, the appeal filed by the appellant stands allowed.”

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Judgment reviewed by Vandana Ragwani

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