Judge demands contempt action against Tamil actor Suriya for criticism of judiciary in his anti-NEET statement

Published : September 14, 2020 18:38 IST

Suriya with children from the Agaram Foundation that his family runs. A file picture. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

An innocuous reference to the judiciary’s functioning in his passionate statement against the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) has made popular Tamil actor Suriya Sivakumar the target of right-wing attack and prompted a Madras High Court Judge to urge the Chief Justice to initiate contempt proceedings against him.

Suriya, who is known for his strong views on various social issues, had issued a statement on Twitter in Tamil on the need to abolish NEET following a spate of suicides by medical course aspirants in the State — three on a single day (September 12) under extreme anxiety caused by the exam scheduled for September 13. In his tweet, he said: “My heart goes out to the three families…! Can’t imagine pain..!!” After the news broke that a judge had sought contempt proceedings against the actor, the hash tag #TNStandWithSuriya started trending on social media.

Listing out the various commissions and omissions of the State and other agencies which, according to him , had failed impoverished students, the actor said: “The court that dispenses justice through videoconferencing out of fear of death due to corona orders the students to write the examination fearlessly.”

Perturbed, Justice S.M. Subramaniam, a senior judge of the Madras High Court, wrote to Chief Justice Amreshwar Pratap Sahi, asking him to initiate suo motu criminal contempt of court against Suriya. The judge said he read Suriya’s statement on YouTube and also saw the media coverage of it.

He noted: “The statement [which the judge translated into English from Tamil] reveals that the Hon'ble Judges are afraid of their own life and rendering justice through video conferencing. while-so, [sic.] they have no morale to pass orders directing the students to appear for NEET Exam without fear.” He further said: “The said statement in my considered opinion amounts to contempt of court as the integrity and devotion of the Hon'ble Judges as well as the Judicial System of our Great Nation are not only undermined but criticised in a bad shape, wherein there is threat for the public confidence on the Judiciary. Thus, the Cine Actor Mr. Surya has committed contempt, warranting contempt proceedings to uphold the Majesty of our Indian Judicial System.”

The rights activist and senior advocate Henry Tiphagne told Frontline that there was nothing in the actor’s statement that warranted contempt proceedings. “He has not named any judge or court or passed any disparaging comments. He is a socially conscious actor. His comments just reflected the common sentiment that is prevailing in society today. It is a fact that the courts are not functioning. While virtual courts are functioning, children were exposed to the threat of infection under the ruse of examination. Even lawyers have been demanding that courts should start functioning physically. The judiciary needs to be tolerant,” he said. M.H. Jawahirullah, leader of the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, was among those who criticised the move to initiate contempt proceedings against Suriya.

In fact, the statement is confined to NEET and its adverse implications for poor rural students. In the statement, Suriya, whose family runs the Agaram Foundation, a voluntary body that helps poor children pursue their education, had expressed his anguish that NEET did not ensure a level playing field, thus snuffing out the aspirations of poor students from rural areas who aspired to become doctors. He said that a government that was supposed to ensure equality was promoting a system of biases. “Those who do not understand the reality and predicaments of poor and ordinary students are formulating the educational policies,” he said.

In his statement, Suriya said that the death by suicide of students was a topic of discussion in the media just for one day, while some “Chanakyas” found errors in the suicide notes left by the dead students. He asked the people to “unite as one society” to fight against the attempt to destroy the dreams of the wards of ordinary people who aspired to be doctors. “If we do not remain vigilant, suicides would take place again and again. We cannot remain mute spectators to the deaths of our innocent students,” he said.

[Tamil Nadu has reported around 10 suicides so far among medical seat aspirants since S. Anita’s death in September 2017 after the Supreme Court endorsed the Centre’s decision to conduct NEET. Recently, several State governments approached the Supreme Court again to postpone NEET citing COVID 19 cases. But the apex court upheld the Centre's decision to hold it.]

Calling NEET as “Manu needhi” (Manu’s justice), the actor, the elder son of veteran Tamil actor Sivakumar, said: “We should never allow a situation in which mere examinations and tests should decide the quality and eligibility of our children. While we are preparing our children for such unjustified examinations, we, parents, also must prepare them to face both successes and failures. They must be made to realise that the results of such examinations are nothing before a loving and caring family.” The actor also said that since the present educational system was not interested in the students’ welfare, parents should always remain vigilant.

Citing the Mahabharata story of Ekalavya and Dronacharya, Suriya said, “modern day Dronachariyars stymie our children by forcing public examinations on them even for sixth standard.” They also possessed new weapons, such as NEET, to sacrifice those who managed to cross the hurdles erected by these Dronachars on their path.

Of late, Suriya has made an aggressive foray into public space with statements on some important social issues. Some of his statements have ruffled the feathers of Hindutva elements. Recently, he criticised the Draft National Education Policy (NEP). When his actor wife Jyothika was trolled by right-wing forces for asking people to donate more money to build schools and hospitals than to temples, Surya defended her saying that humanism was more important than all other things. “That’s what Jyothika has stressed,” he said. He also condemned the brutal custodial deaths of the father-son duo at the Sathankulam police station and demanded justice for the family. He welcomed the State government’s decision to rescind the proposal to conduct public examinations for Classes 5 and 8 after it faced severe public criticism and opposition. He maintained that public examinations could never be the scale to measure the students’ learning skills.

Meanwhile, six former judges of the Madras High Court – K. Chandru, K.N. Basha, T. Sudanthiram, D. Hariparanthaman, A. Kannan and G.M. Akbar Ali –have appealed to the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court not to proceed with the contempt appeal.

The judges felt that such a construction made on the statement of Suriya would be slightly off the mark and it did not require any action as requested by the learned Judge. They further said that in a surcharged atmosphere following the suicide of students who could not meet the NEET requirement, an artistic person's over-reaction should not be taken seriously and also out of context.

They said: “If the letter is read in its totality and considering the good social work done by him through his Trust which had helped hundreds of poor students to complete their higher education and get placements, we should show generosity and magnanimity in leaving the matter without any cognisance. Being former Judges and concerned about the prestige and honour of this court, we earnestly make this appeal not to take cognisance of the complaint and leave the matter as it is.”

They further pointed out that it was their “duty to make this appeal” so that the court was rid of any unnecessary controversies.

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