SC on power to punish for contempt

Court :
Supreme Court of India

Brief :
The bench comprising of Justice Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh set aside the contempt proceedings initiated by the the Madras High Court against Sudhir Vasudeva, Chairman and Managing Director of ONGC. Important highlights of the judgment: ''The power vested in the High Courts as well as this Court to punish for contempt is a special and rare power available both under the Constitution as well as the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. It is a drastic power which, if misdirected, could even curb the liberty of the individual charged with commission of contempt. The very nature of the power casts a sacred duty in the Courts to exercise the same with the greatest of care and caution...'' ''Courts must not, therefore, travel beyond the four corners of the order which is alleged to have been flouted or enter into questions that have not been dealt with or decided in the judgment or the order violation of which is alleged. Only such directions which are explicit in a judgment or order or are plainly self evident ought to be taken into account for the purpose of consideration as to whether there has been any disobedience or willful violation of the same... '' ''Courts must also ensure that while considering a contempt plea the power available to the Court in other corrective jurisdictions like review or appeal is not trenched upon...''

Citation :
Air India Statutory Corporation and Others Vs. United Labour Union and Others Steel Authority of India Ltd. & Ors. Vs. National Union Waterfront Workers & Ors Jhareswar Prasad Paul and Another vs. Tarak Nath Ganguly and Others V.M.Manohar Prasad vs. N. Ratnam Raju and Another Bihar Finance Service House Construction Cooperative Society Ltd. vs.Gautam Goswami and Others Union of India and Others vs. Subedar Devassy PV





Special Leave Petition (C) NO.23272 OF 2012






1. Leave granted.


2.  Aggrieved by a direction of the Madras High Court in 

exercise of its contempt jurisdiction to create supernumerary 

posts, this appeal  has been filed by the respondents in the 

contempt proceeding.  


Page 1

3. Shorn off unnecessary details the core facts that would 

need a recital are enumerated hereinbelow.

The respondents in the present appeal were engaged as 

Radio Operators on contract basis in the Oil and Natural Gas 

Corporation  Ltd.  (hereinafter  referred  to  as  “the 

Corporation”),  a  Public  Sector  Undertaking,  inter  alia,  

engaged  in  on-shore  and  off-shore  oil  and  natural  gas 

exploration.  By a notification dated 08.09.1994 issued under 

Section  10(1)  of  the  Contract  Labour  (Regulation  and 

Abolition) Act, 1970 employment of contract labour in various 

works  in  the  Corporation,  including  the  work  of  Radio 

Operators, was prohibited.  A Writ Petition bearing No. 15211 

of 1991 seeking a direction to the Corporation to treat the 

contract  Radio  Operators  at  par  with  the  regular  Marine 

Assistant Radio Operators was pending before the High Court 

at that point of time.  Subsequently, the union representing 

56  number  of  contract  employees  engaged  as  Radio 

Operators instituted another Writ Petition i.e. W.P. No. 1178 

of 1996 seeking the same relief.  


Page 2

4. In Air India Statutory Corporation and Others Vs.  

United Labour Union and Others


 this Court took the view 

that upon abolition of contract labour the persons engaged 

on contract  basis  became  the  employees  of  the  principal 

employer  and  hence  entitled  to  regularization  under  the 

principal  employer.   The said view has been subsequently 

dissented from, though prospectively, in Steel Authority of 

India  Ltd.  &  Ors.  Vs.  National  Union  Waterfront 

Workers & Ors.


.  Following the decision of this Court in Air 

India Statutory Corporation and Others (supra) the writ 

petitions  were  allowed  by  a  learned  Single  Judge  of  the 

Madras High Court by Order dated 29.01.1997.  The Letters 

Patent Appeal filed by the Corporation against the said order 

was dismissed.  The matter was carried to this Court in S.L.P. 

(Civil)  No.20951 of 1997 which was disposed on 12.1.1998 

with the following operative direction.



“Mr.  V.R.  Reddy,  learned  Additional  Solicitor

General  appearing  on  behalf  of  the  petitioner

states that those of the 56 workmen who are found

to  be  qualified  in  terms  of  the  appropriate

regulations, as in force at the relevant time, shall 

 (1997) 9 SCC 377

 (2001) 7 SCC 1


Page 3

be absorbed as contemplated by the judgment in

Air  India Statutory Corporation & Ors.  vs.  United

Labour Union & Ors. 1997 (7) SCC 377.  In view of

this  statement  the  SLP  does  not  survive and is

disposed of.”

5.    Following the aforesaid order of this Court in the special 

leave  petition  the  respondents  herein  were  absorbed  as 

“Junior  Helpers”  with  effect  from 29.1.1997  by  an  order 

dated 2.4.1998.   Their pay was fixed at  the bottom of the 

basic pay of Class IV employees of the Corporation.  It may 

be  noticed,  at  this  stage,  that  the  respondents  being 

employees of the Southern Region of the Corporation were 

posted at Karaikal and Rajamundry stations.  

6. It appears that thereafter a Committee was constituted 

by  the  Ministry  of  Petroleum  &  Natural  Gas  which 

recommended that the Corporation is bound to absorb all the 

contract Radio Operators who had the requisite qualification 

in the post of Marine Assistant Radio Operators with effect 

from 8.9.1994 and in the pay scale applicable to the said 

post as on 8.9.1994. 


Page 4

7. As the aforesaid recommendation of the Committee was 

not being given effect to, the present respondents instituted 

another proceeding before the High Court  i.e.  Writ Petition 

No. 21518 of 2000 seeking a direction for their absorption as 

Marine Assistant Radio Operators with effect from 8.9.1994. 

Specifically,  it  must  be  taken  note  of  that  in  the 

aforesaid  writ  proceeding  the  Corporation  had,  inter  alia, 

contended that there was no requirement of Marine Assistant 

Radio  Operators  in  the  Southern  Region  Business  Centre 

(SRBC) or other regions of the Corporation as there were no 

adequate off-shore operations.  It was also contended that on 

account of the upgraded technology available, there is also 

no necessity for the service of a Radio Operator as with the 

advancement of technology the users themselves were in a 

position to operate the system without the assistance of an 


8. By order dated 2.8.2006 the writ petition was disposed 

of with the following findings and operative directions:


Page 5

"32. Therefore,  considering  the  entire  facts  and

circumstances of the case in the light of the report

of  the committee,  recommendation made by the

Ministry  of  Petroleum and  Natural  Gas  and  the

judgment  of  the  Supreme  Court  in  Air  India

Statutory Corporation case, cited supra, I am of the

considered  view  that  the  absorption  of  the

petitioners by the respondent corporation as Junior

Helpers with the pay of Rs.2,282/- old basic bottom

of  Class  IV  cadre  was  not  fair  and  proper  and

certainly  not  in  strict  compliance  of  the

undertaking given by the respondent  corporation

before the Supreme Court.   On the other hand,  I

am of the considered view that the petitioners are

entitled to be absorbed as Marine Assistant Radio


33. In the result,  the writ  petition is allowed as

prayed  for.   The  respondents  are  directed  to

absorb the petitioners as Marine Assistant  Radio

Operators with effect from 8.9.1994 on the basis of

the  abolition  of  contract  labour  and  as  per  the

recommendations dated 4-6-1999 of  the Ministry

of  Petroleum and  Natural  Gas,  Government  of

India,  to the first respondent and the approval  of

the competent  authority as communicated in the

fax  dated  23-9-1999  to  the  third  and  fourth

respondents  with  all  monetary  benefits  and  all

other attendant benefits.  If for any reason, there is

no cadre  of  Marine  Assistant  Radio Operator  or

there are no sufficient  posts are available in the

cadre  of  Marine  Assistant  Radio  Operators  to

accommodate all the petitioners, the respondents

are  directed  to  give  “pay  protection”  to  the

petitioners and sanction them the scale of pay as

applicable to the Marine Assistant Radio Operators

as recommended by the Ministry of Petroleum and

Natural Gas.”


Page 6

9. The aforesaid order dated 2.8.2006 was challenged by 

the Corporation in Writ Appeal  No. 1290 of 2006 which was 

dismissed on 19.12.2006 with a direction to the Corporation 

to implement  the order  of  the learned Single Judge dated 

2.8.2006 within  a  period of  four  weeks  from the  date  of 

receipt of a copy of the order.  Two other writ petitions i.e. 

W.P. Nos. 27500 of 2006 and 27529 of 2006 seeking similar 

relief(s) were also allowed by a separate order of the learned 

Single  Judge  dated  4.4.2007.   The  aforesaid  orders  were 

challenged before this Court in Civil Appeal Nos. 765 of 2008 

and 766-767 of 2008 which were heard alongwith Transfer 

Petition (C)  No.  889 of  2007 which was  filed by similarly 

situated  persons.  By  order  dated  30.10.2009  all  the  civil 

appeals  and  the  transfer  petition  were  dismissed  by  this 

Court with the following directions :

“We  have  heard  the  learned  senior  counsel

appearing on behalf of the parties.

Learned  counsel  appearing  for  the  parties

have  taken  us  to  various  documents  and

pleadings.  On consideration of the totality of the

facts  and  circumstances  of  this  case,  in  our

opinion,  no  case  has  been  made  out  for  our

interference  under  our  extraordinary  jurisdiction 


Page 7

under  Article  136  of  the  Constitution  of  India.

These appeals are accordingly dismissed.  

However, as prayed for by the learned senior

counsel appearing on behalf of the appellants, we

direct the appellant Oil & Natural Gas Corporation

to implement the orders within three months.

Transfer Petition (Civil) No. 889 of 2007

In  view  of  our  order  passed  in  the  Civil 

Appeals  above-mentioned,  no  orders  are

necessary in the transfer  petition.   The transfer

petition is disposed of.”

10. Alleging non-implementation and disobedience  of  the 

order dated 2.8.2006 passed in W.P. No. 21518 of 2000 as 

affirmed by order dated 19.12.2006 in Writ Appeal No. 1290 

of 2006 and order dated 30.10.2009 passed in Civil  Appeal 

No.765 of 2008, Contempt Petition (C) No. 161 of 2010 was 

filed before the High Court wherein the impugned direction 

for  creation  of  supernumerary  posts  of  Marine  Assistant 

Radio Operator was made by the order dated 19.1.2012.  The 

said order has been affirmed by a Division Bench of the High 

Court by the impugned order dated 11.7.2002.  Aggrieved, 

the present appeal has been filed.


Page 8

11. At this stage, it may be necessary to take note of two 

other Contempt Petition Nos. 141 of 2010 and 343 of 2010 

which  had  been  instituted  in  the  High  Court  against  the 

similar  order  dated  4.4.2007 passed in  Writ  Petition Nos. 

27500  and  27529  of  2006  which  order  had  also  been 

affirmed by this Court in the connected civil appeals i.e. Civil 

Appeal  Nos.766-767 of  2008,  as  already noticed.   Regard 

must also be had to Contempt Petition (C) No. 130 of 2010 

filed before this Court by similarly situated persons in respect 

of the order dated 30.10.2009 passed in Transfer Petition (C) 

No. 889 of 2007.  

12. Insofar  as Contempt  Petition (C)  Nos.  141 and 343 of 

2010 are concerned,  the same has been dismissed by the 

High Court by its order dated 31.8.2010 holding that no case 

of commission of contempt is made out.  Contempt Petition 

No. 130 of 2010 before this Court was ordered to be closed in 

view of the averments made in an affidavit dated 9.3.2011 

filed on behalf of the Corporation.  Paras 6 and 7 of the said 

affidavit  would require to be taken note of  and are being 

extracted below.


Page 9

“6. I say that since there is no vacant post in the

cadre of  Assistant  Marine Radio Operator  in the

Southern Region (to which region the Respondents

in Civil  Appeal  Nos.  765-767 of  2008 before this

Hon’ble Court  belonged and to which region the

Petitioners  in  the  present  Contempt  Petition

belong)  and,  no vacancy in the post of  Assistant

Marine Radio Operator in the Southern Region has

arisen  after  the  order  and  judgment  dated

2.8.2006  of the Ld.  Single Judge in Writ  Petition

No.  21518 of  2000,  the respondents  in the said

Appeal could not be accommodated in the post of

Assistant  Marine Radio Operator.   Consequently,

until such vacancies arise and, in accordance with

the direction issued by the Ld. Single Judge of the

High  Court  (and  upheld  by  this  Hon’ble  Court),

Respondent No. 1took the following steps :

(i) deployed the respondents in Civil Appeal

No.  765/2008,  who formed a  separate

protected  class,  as  Supernumerary

Helpers in the scale of pay applicable to

Assistant  Marine  Radio  Operators,  so

that they are not rendered idle.

(ii) gave  “pay  protection”  to  the  said

respondents  for  the  pay  drawn  by

Assistant  Marine  Radio  Operator  from

the  date  of  their  absorption,  i.e.


(iii) paid them the  difference  between  the

“protected pay” and the pay previously

drawn by them as  Junior  Helpers  from

the  date  of  their  absorption  on


7. I say that even as on date there is no vacancy

in  the  post  of  Assistant  Marine  Radio  Operator 


Page 10

(Southern Region).  However, since the Petitioners

herein have sought to be treated at par with the

Respondents  in  Civil  Appeal  No.  765  of  2008,

Respondent No. 1 is prepared to, in order to give a

quietus to the matter extend to the Petitioners the

same treatment  and benefits aforesaid extended

to the Respondents in Civil Appeal No. 765 of 2008

with effect from the date of  their  absorption i.e.

with effect from 18.2.1998, as has been prayed for

by the Petitioners in the Writ Petition filed by them

in the High Court of Judicature of Andhra Pradesh.”

13. The question that  arises in the present  appeal,  in the 

backdrop of the facts noted above, is whether the appellants 

who are the officers of  the Corporation and had complied 

with the alternative direction contained in the order  dated 

2.8.2006 passed in Writ Petition (C) No. 21518 of 2000 would 

still be liable for commission of contempt and the only way in 

which the appellants can purge themselves of the contempt 

allegedly committed is by creation of supernumerary posts of 

Marine Assistant Radio Operators.  An answer to the above 

question centres around the contours of  the power  of  the 

Court while exercising its contempt jurisdiction.


Page 11

14. We  have  heard  Shri  Goolam E.  Vahanvati,  learned 

Attorney  General  for  the  appellants  and  Shri  P.P.  Rao, 

learned senior counsel for the respondents.

15. The  learned  Attorney  General  has  urged  that  the 

question of the very necessity of having/continuing the posts 

of Marine Assistant Radio Operators in the Corporation was a 

live  issue  in  Writ  Petition  No.  21518  of  2000  as  the 

Corporation had contended that the work requirement of the 

Corporation did not justify the continuation of the post in the 

cadre of Marine Assistant Radio Operators, particularly, in the 

SRCB where the Corporation was not  engaged in any off-

shore operation.   It  is urged that  in the light  of  the stand 

taken by the Corporation, the option/alternative direction of 

granting parity of pay to the respondents was issued.  It is 

not  in dispute that  the Corporation had complied with the 

said  direction.   In  a  situation  where  the  operational 

requirements of the Corporation did not justify the retention 

of the posts of Marine Assistant Radio Operators any further, 

its officers cannot be faulted for not creating supernumerary 

posts  of  Marine  Assistant  Radio  Operators  and  instead 


Page 12

creating  posts  of  Junior  Helpers  to  accommodate  the 

respondents and thereafter giving them protection/parity of 

pay in terms of the option granted  by  the  High Court.   The 

learned Attorney  has further submitted that there being no 

direction  for  creation  of  posts  of  Marine  Assistant  Radio 

Operators  in the order  dated 2.8.2006 it  was  beyond the 

power of the learned Judge, hearing the Contempt Petition, 

to issue such a direction.   The said error,  being apparent, 

ought to have been corrected in the appeal filed before the 

High Court. The order of the Division Bench dated 11.7.2012 

impugned  in  the  present  appeal  is,  therefore,  open  to 

interference in the present appeal.

14. On the other hand Shri P.P. Rao, learned senior counsel 

appearing  for  the  respondents  has  contended  that  an 

obligation to create supernumerary posts of Marine Assistant 

Radio Operator is mandated by the very terms of the Order 

dated 02.08.2006 passed in Writ Petition No. 21518 of 2000. 

Shri  Rao has contended that when supernumerary posts of 

Junior Helpers have been created and parity of pay with the 

higher post has been granted it is difficult to conceive why 


Page 13

supernumerary  posts  of  Marine  Assistant  Radio  Operator 

were not created in order to fully comply with the Order of 

the High Court.  It is also pointed out that it is evident from 

the  provisions  of  the  relevant  Regulations  governing  the 

service conditions of the respondents i.e. Oil and Natural Gas 

Corporation  Ltd.  i.e.  Modified  Recruitment  and  Promotion 

Regulations, 1980, that had the respondents been absorbed 

as Marine Assistant Radio Operators they would have earned 

promotions  under  the  Regulations  which  avenues  stand 

closed due to their absorption in the post of Junior Helper. 

Shri Rao has also referred to the correspondence exchanged 

between the Corporation and the Ministry of Petroleum and 

Natural  Gas,  Government  of  India,  which  is  available  on 

record, to show that there existed/exists a cadre of Marine 

Assistant  Radio  Operator  and  the  strength  of  the  cadre 

depends  on  the  necessity  of  the  operations  of  the 

Corporation.  The cadre strength is flexible depending on the 

job  requirement,  it  is  urged.   Shri  Rao,  therefore,  has 

contended  that  the  action  taken  by  the  appellants  in 

purported compliance of the Court’s Order dated 02.08.2006 


Page 14

would  still  make  them liable  for  contempt  which  can  be 

purged only by creation of posts of Marine Assistant  Radio 

Operator, as directed by the High Court. 

15. The power  vested in the High Courts  as  well  as  this 

Court  to punish for  contempt  is a special  and rare power 

available  both  under  the  Constitution  as  well  as  the 

Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.  It is a drastic power which, if 

misdirected,  could even  curb the  liberty  of  the  individual 

charged with commission of contempt.   The very nature of 

the power casts a sacred duty in the Courts to exercise the 

same with the greatest  of  care and caution.   This is also 

necessary  as,  more  often  than  not,  adjudication  of  a 

contempt plea involves a process of self determination of the 

sweep, meaning and effect of the order in respect of which 

disobedience is alleged.   Courts must not,  therefore,  travel 

beyond the four corners of the order which is alleged to have 

been flouted or enter into questions that have not been dealt 

with or  decided in the judgment  or  the order  violation of 

which is alleged.  Only such directions which are explicit in a 

judgment  or  order  or  are plainly self  evident  ought  to be 


Page 15

taken into account  for  the purpose of  consideration as  to 

whether there has been any disobedience or willful violation 

of the same.   Decided issues cannot be reopened;  nor the 

plea of equities can be considered.  Courts must also ensure 

that while considering a contempt plea the power available 

to the Court  in other  corrective jurisdictions like review or 

appeal  is  not  trenched  upon.   No  order  or  direction 

supplemental to what has been already expressed should be 

issued  by  the  Court  while  exercising  jurisdiction  in  the 

domain  of  the  contempt  law;  such  an  exercise  is  more 

appropriate  in  other  jurisdictions  vested  in  the  Court,  as 

noticed above.  The above principles would appear to be the 

cumulative  outcome  of  the  precedents  cited  at  the  bar, 

namely,  Jhareswar Prasad Paul and Another vs. Tarak 

Nath Ganguly and Others

Ratnam Raju  and  Another


, V.M.Manohar Prasad vs. N. 


, Bihar  Finance  Service 

House  Construction  Cooperative  Society  Ltd.  vs.  



 (2002) 5 SCC 352

 (2004) 13 SCC 610


Page 16

Gautam Goswami and Others

Others vs. Subedar Devassy PV


  and Union of India and 



16. Applying the above settled principles to the case before 

us, it is clear that the direction of the High Court for creation 

of supernumerary posts of Marine Assistant Radio Operator 

cannot be countenanced.  Not only the Courts must act with 

utmost restraint  before compelling the executive to create 

additional posts, the impugned direction virtually amounts to 

supplementing the directions contained in the order of the 

High Court dated 02.8.2006.  The alterative direction i.e. to 

grant parity of pay could very well have been occasioned by 

the  stand  taken  by  the  Corporation  with  regard  to  the 

necessity of keeping in existence the cadre itself in view of 

the  operational  needs  of  the  Corporation.   If  despite  the 

specific stand taken by the Corporation in this regard the 

High Court was of the view that the respondents should be 

absorbed  as  Marine  Assistant  Radio  Operator  nothing 

prevented the High Court from issuing a specific direction to 

create  supernumerary  posts  of  Marine  Assistant  Radio 



 (2008) 5 SCC 339

 (2006) 1 SCC 613


Page 17

Operator.   The  same  was  not  done.   If  that  be  so,  the 

direction  to  create  supernumerary  posts  at  the  stage  of 

exercise of the contempt jurisdiction has to be understood to 

be an addition to the initial order passed in the Writ Petition. 

The argument  that  such a direction is implicit  in the order 

dated 02.08.2006 is self defeating.  Neither, is such a course 

of action open to balance the equities, i.e. not to foreclose 

the promotional  avenues of the petitioners,  as vehemently 

urged by Shri Rao.  The issue is one of jurisdiction and not of 

justification.  Whether the direction issued would be justified 

by way of review or in exercise of any other jurisdiction is an 

aspect  that  does  not  concern  us  in  the  present  case.  Of 

relevance is the fact that an alternative direction had been 

issued by the High Court by its order dated 02.08.2006 and 

the appellants, as officers of the Corporation, have complied 

with the same.   They cannot be,  therefore,   understood to 

have acted in willful  disobedience of  the said order  of  the 

Court.   All that was required in terms of the second direction 

having been complied with by the appellants, we are of the 

view that  the order  dated 02.08.2006 passed in W.P.  No. 


Page 18

21518 of 2000 stands duly implemented.  Consequently, we 

set  aside the Order  dated 19.01.2012 passed in Contempt 

Petition No.  161 of  2010,  as  well  as  the  impugned order 

dated 11.07.2012 passed in Contempt Appeal  No.2 of 2012 

and allow the present appeal.   


FEBRUARY 4, 2014.








Page 19


on 05 February 2014
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