On 28 March 2023, the Punjab and Haryana High Court unsealed three out of four reports that had been submitted to the court in 2018, by a Special Investigation Team looking into the alleged involvement of police officials in the drug trade in Punjab. The division bench currently presiding over the matter, comprising Justices GS Sandhawalia and Harpreet Kaur Jeevan, also held that the state government could initiate action based on the findings of the report if it wished to do so. On 17 April, the Punjab government dismissed Raj Jit Singh Hundal, one of the police officials named in the SIT reports, and recommended that the state’s vigilance bureau initiate an investigation into his financial dealings. These judicial proceedings form part of a high-profile drug-trafficking case that was set in motion in 2013, when the Punjab police arrested a former award-winning wrestler, Jagdish Bhola, after it recovered drugs worth Rs 20 crore from him and his associates.
A little over a month before the ruling, on 24 February, Sandhawalia and Jeevan held two individuals guilty of criminal contempt for videos in which they made statements, primarily in relation to the same case, that the bench stated were “malicious” and “derogatory” towards the judiciary. Consequently, the court sentenced Balwinder Singh Sekhon, a former Punjab police official, and Pardeep Sharma—a resident of Ludhiana, described by the court as an “alleged legal expert”—to imprisonment for six months. The court also imposed a fine of Rs 2,000 on each of them.
Sekhon, a former deputy superintendent in the Punjab police, came into the limelight in 2019, when he investigated a real estate scam and unearthed the alleged role of the Congress politician and then food and civil supplies minister, Bharat Bhushan Ashu. Sekhon subsequently moved court against Ashu, alleging that the politician had threatened him, while Ashu claimed that Sekhon sent him abusive texts. In August 2021, Sekhon was dismissed from service. According to The Tribune, his dismissal was on the grounds that “he had made unpleasant remarks against the government through the social media while being a member of the disciplined force.” Subsequently, Sekhon founded an anti-corruption front, “Main Punjabi Manch,” and unsuccessfully contested the assembly elections in Punjab in 2022.
In the videos that led to the contempt case against them, Sekhon and Sharma levelled varied charges against several police officials and members of the judiciary—including a sitting judge in the Supreme Court—who have been associated with the 2013 Bhola drugs case. Sekhon and Sharma repeatedly referenced the SIT reports, which were still sealed at the time, and demanded that they be unsealed.
The three-member-team that authored a bulk of these reports was constituted by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in December 2017, after the arrest of a police inspector by a government-appointed anti-drugs Special Task Force. The SIT was meant to investigate the alleged complicity of senior police officials in the supply of drugs across Punjab. This team was headed by Siddharth Chattopadhyaya, then the director general of police for human-resource development. Within a few months of its formation, in early 2018, the SIT submitted three status reports under sealed covers to the court, on 1 February, 15 March and 8 May respectively. On 8 May, Chattopadhyaya submitted a fourth report as well, also under a sealed cover, which only he had signed off on.
The reports made serious allegations of a nexus between law enforcement officials and politicians in support of the drug trade in Punjab. The names of numerous senior police officers featured in the investigation. These included Suresh Arora and Dinkar Gupta, former chiefs of the Punjab Police. (Arora is now the Chief Information Commissioner of Punjab, and Gupta is the director general of the National Investigation Agency.)
Soon after all the SIT reports were submitted, the judges Surya Kant and Shekher Dhawan, who were hearing the case at the time, passed an order in May 2018 stating that they would study the submissions in detail. “Registrar Judicial would produce the sealed reports/entire record before us on the day and time as would be separately intimated to him, for our in depth consideration of these reports.” However, for over five years, until the recent ruling, no substantive order was passed on the matter, and the reports remained under sealed covers. As The Caravan detailed in its cover story in September 2021, the state government and judiciary’s delay in acting on these and other reports in the matter resulted in an effectual response to the prevailing drug menace in Punjab.
The bench comprising Sandhawalia and Jeevan first issued a criminal contempt notice to Sekhon on 15 February 2023, after proceedings relating to the drug trade case were concluded for the day. The court took issue with a video that Sekhon had published on his social media accounts on 26 January, a day before another hearing on the same matter. In the video, Sekhon “had given suggestions to the undersigned Bench” on how to proceed in the hearing related to the 2013 Bhola drug case apart from “referring to more than 10 Judges of this Court and one sitting Judge of the Supreme Court against whom scandalous allegations have been made.”
According to the bench, the publication of the video on Sekhon’s Youtube account intended “to scandalize and…lower the authority of this Court” and “interfere with due course of judicial proceedings.” Listing other instances in which Sekhon had spoken out—including at a press conference held days before the hearing that was underway—the court reasoned that the video was not an “isolated incident.” The matter relating to the contempt notice against Sekhon was listed for 28 March 2023.
Sekhon and Sharma were both present in courtroom during this hearing. After the bench issued the notice to Sekhon, Sharma attempted to defend Sekhon to the judges. The bench informed him that since he did not have any direct connection to the case, he could file an intervention application if he wished to. When Sharma insisted that he be heard by the court, Sandhawalia and Jeevan noted that they “felt that it was not necessary.” Sharma was marshalled out of the courtroom by the police officials present there.
Soon after, Sekhon and Sharma featured in another video, recorded at the entrance of the court. In an order that it passed on 20 February, the court noted that in this video, 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.” Sharma suggested that he be appointed the nodal officer so that he could oversee the opening of these sealed reports. He also criticised the workings of Sandhawalia and Jeevan’s court, in which the drug trade cases were being heard, disparaging in particular, one of the two judges whose father was a chief justice in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. “Mr Sekhon then named two senior police officials, due to to which, the reports had not been opened,” and claimed that “the Bench would wet its pants if the envelopes are opened” the court noted, “it was further commented that the Judges had been leashed by a certain set of people.”
A day later, on 16 February, Sekhon and Sharma appeared in another interview in which they were interviewed by Baljit Marwaha, a reporter from the news portal Scroll Punjab. During the conversation, the bench noted, “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.” Deeming the conversation a “virtual panchayat… whereby abuses are showered on this Court,” Sandhawalia and Jeevan stated that Sekhon, Sharma and Marwaha appeared to be “unmindful of the fact that this ‘Temple of Justice’ is adourned [sic] 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.” Referring to Sekhon’s earlier videos, the bench noted that he levelled “unsubstantiated allegations…of financial misdemeanour apart from judges facing political pressure.”
In the 20 February order, the bench stated that it had reached the view that Sekhon and Sharma were “guilty of contempt of the Court in its presence.” It directed the commissioner of police in Ludhiana to arrest the duo and produce them in court on 24 February so that the charges against them could be determined. It also ordered that Marwaha be served with a bailable warrant to remain present in court as well.
Additionally, the court held that “the loading of such videos on social platform at international level brings disrepute to the Constitutional Institution and it amounts to virtually inciting the public against the rule of law.” According to the bench, this meant that a “gauntlet is being thrown…and we do not shrug off our constitutional duties to take it head on.” To this end, the court directed the ministry of electronics and IT, the Chandigarh administration and its senior police officials to “take appropriate steps to block access by the public of any information regarding videos put on the platform” by Sekhon and Sharma, as well as “any such videos aired by both of them” on Marawaha’s channel, or any other channel. The court also ordered the the registrar (computerisation) to prepare a list of “all the offending videos pertaining to Court proceedings,” that had been circulated by Sekhon and Sharma, which the registrar was required to submit to the ministry of electronics as well as officials from the Chandigarh administration.
Subsequently—as per a compliance report filed by way of an affidavit by the superintendent of Chandigarh police (cyber cell)—the cyber cell sent emails to Meta and Youtube with the details of Sekhon’s account or channel on the websites, and a directive to “remove/block/restrict/disable access on a global basis.” The emails noted that, in accordance with the court order, Meta and Youtube were also required to “take appropriate steps to block access by public of other such types of” Facebook accounts or pages, and Youtube channels or videos. Additionally, in an email to Twitter, the cyber cell referred to Sandhawalia and Jeevan’s judgment and asked the organisation to “remove/block/restrict/disable access on a global basis” to Twitter accounts that were tweeting or “speaking/provoking against the present court and Indian judiciary at the earliest possible.”
On 24 February, four days after they were arrested, Sekhon and Sharma appeared before the court. The bench held them guilty and pronounced the sentence. Relying on judicial precedents, it ruled that “evidence will not have to be led for delaying the matter and for quick dispensation of justice in such like cases to ensure that the message goes home.” The court also held that there was no need to postpone the proceedings in order to conduct a trial since the “mud-slinging by way of open publication and representation of such malicious material being circulated not only at the national but international level, amounts to inciting people at large against the Rule of Law and against one of the basic wing [sic] of the democratic set up under the Constitution of India consisting of the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary.”
In its order, the bench noted that Sekhon and Sharma had given bytes to the media on the premises of the court while they were in police custody. Consequently, a departmental enquiry was initiated against the station house officer of Sarabha Nagar police station, in Ludhiana, and an explanation was sought from two assistant commissioners of police regarding the lapse. The court directed the state of Punjab to file a status report regarding these proceedings. It also sought an explanation on whether “such offending videos, which are constantly being posted on social media platforms since the last six months in which derogatory remarks against the constitutional institutions and against a Judge of the Supreme Court and the Judges of this Court are being made on a regular basis,” amounted to an offence under provisions of the Indian Penal Code 1860, the Information and Technology Act 2000, and other Special Acts. The court directed that the affidavit provide an explanation on why the state had not initiated proceedings earlier against “the persons who were constantly uploading/posting such videos,” and whether the state had the authority under certain provisions to “detain people who indulge in such activities.” The report was to be submitted within a period of four weeks.
Drawing its attention to the fact that Sekhon’s Youtbe channel, “Balwinder Sekhon Speaks,” had 37,000 subscribers, the bench directed Meta, Youtube and Twitter to file affidavits on the monetary benefits that users with such large user bases could accrue, and sought details on whether Sekhon had earned any revenue through the channel. It also asked for information on any complaints that had been filed against Sekhon’s channel or accounts, and details on the redressal mechanism that the organisations had initiated for such grievances.
When the bench announced its sentence, Sekhon raised the slogan of, “Judicial gundagardi murdabad”—Death to judicial hooliganism—within the court. With this, the court noted, he “further compounded the contempt and for that, we are not in a position to give a lesser sentence than has been awarded.” According to Sekhon’s lawyer Harinder Singh Baidwan, he was not allowed to represent Sekhon during the hearing by the court. Baidwan told The Caravan that he would soon challenge the conviction order in the Supreme Court on behalf of Sekhon.
On 22 March, officials from the Ludhiana police lodged a First Information Report against Sekhon and Sharma in the matter under multiple sections, including: Sections 153-A that pertains to promoting enmity between different groups on grounds such as religion, race, place of birth, residence, or language; and 506, pertaining to criminal intimidation.