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HC holds IAS officer guilty of contempt, sends him to jail

Justice M.V. Muralidaran held the two officials guilty of disobeying orders passed by the Madurai Bench of the High Court


In a significant judgement, the Madras High Court on Wednesday sentenced IAS officer M.K. Shanmuga Sundaram, serving as Development Commissioner of the Madras Export Processing Zone (MEPZ), an entity functioning under the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and its Assistant Development Commissioner N. Rajalingam to two weeks’ imprisonment in a contempt of court case.

Justice M.V. Muralidaran held the two officials guilty of disobeying orders passed by the Madurai Bench of the High Court in favour of beach sand mining firms V.V. Minerals and Transworld Garnet India Private Limited. He also directed them to pay a fine of Rs 5,000 each within three weeks or undergo two more weeks of simple imprisonment.

“Punishing a person for contempt of court is indeed a drastic step, and normally, such action should be taken with circumspection. At the same time, it is not only the power conferred upon the court but also its duty to uphold and maintain the dignity of the court and majesty of law which may call for such an extreme step.

“If, for proper administration of justice, and to ensure due compliance with the order passed by the court, a compulsion is thrust upon the court to take a strict view under the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, the court should not hesitate to enforce its own order by exercising the power of contempt inasmuch as it is also the duty of the court to enforce its own order.

“Otherwise, the person in whose favour the order, judgment or decree is passed will be not only losing his confidence in the court approached for justice but also the entire proceedings will be rendered meaningless. Consequently, the sanctity of the court’s proceedings would also become a mockery and an empty formality,” the judge said.

The issue relates to MEPZ having passed an order on October 28, 2016, suspending the Letter of Permission (LoP) granted to the beach sand mining firms in 1995 to set up their export-oriented units in the special economic zone. The suspension was ordered on the basis of a letter received from the then Tirunelveli Collector, accusing the firms of engaging in illegal mining.

The two firms filed individual writ petitions in the Madurai Bench of the High Court, challenging the suspension orders, and obtained an interim stay on May 25, 2017. In the meantime, the 1995 LoP expired on April 22, 2017, and the firms applied for renewal. The officials, in turn, issued notices on October 9, 2017, questioning why renewal should not be denied.

Taking exception to such action, the writ petitioners filed the present contempt of court applications on the ground that refusal to renew the LoP amounted to disobeying the stay orders passed by the court. The petitioners’ counsel, S. Meenakshi Sundaram, contended that the officials had deliberately flouted court orders by not renewing the LoP.

Accepting the contention, the judge said, “The act of the respondent contemnors certainly amounts to wilful and deliberate defiance of the order of the court. A reading of the proceedings dated October 9, 2017, shows that such proceedings have been passed after recording the order of interim stay passed by this court. Therefore, by no stretch of imagination, the proceedings can be said to have been passed accidentally.”