Prashant Bhushan, a critic of the government and a lawyer known for taking up liberal causes, on Friday, August 14, was held guilty of contempt of court for his two tweets criticizing the judiciary. The offence is punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of up to ₹2,000 or both which will now be decided on August 20.
One of Bhushan’s offensive tweets was alongside a picture of Chief Justice SA Bobde in which he was sitting on a high-end Harley Davidson motorcycle, with critising content. “The CJI rides a Rs 50-lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, without wearing a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC on lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice!” The tweet read.
The other tweet raised questions about the conduct of former CJIs and the court that were based on distorted facts and had the effect of destabilizing the foundation of the Indian judiciary. “When historians in the future look back at the last six years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the SC in this destruction, and more particularly the role of the last four CJIs.” read the tweet by Adv. Prashant Bhushan.
A three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra, in a strongly worded judgement observed that the allegations made in the tweets against the court and CJI are malicious in nature and have the tendency to scandalize the court and such conduct is not expected from Bhushan, who is a lawyer of 30 years standing at the Bar.
The bench which also comprised Justices BR Gavai and Krishna Murari said, “The Indian judiciary is not only one of pillars on which the Indian democracy stands but is the central pillar. An attempt to shake the very foundation of constitutional democracy has to be dealt with an iron hand.”
While the court has pointed him guilty of the stated offences, others may not agree with it. “The view aired by Bhushan is not different from the views held by many people. That the court had to pick out two of Bhushan’s tweets and hold him guilty of criminal contempt smacks of insecurity from the realisation that the image of court in public eyes is very low. It seems like an attempt to scare people into respecting the court.” said a senior at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Alok Prasanna Kumar, who is also a member of Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms, of which Bhushan is a convener, to HT.
Bhushan was made unavailable to statements but in his defence to the court in his affidavit filed on August 2 had said, ”I am entitled to form, hold, & express (opinion) under Article 19(1) (a).”
“There is a world of difference between an allegation that Supreme Court is a poor defender of democracy and a statement alleging corruption or collusion with other arms of state. The former is protected by freedom of speech under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution while the latter can be penalised by a law protected under Article 19(2) which provides for exceptions to free speech. The tweets in question fall under the latter category.” said Supreme Court lawyer, Kanu Agrawal.
The court claims that if an attack on the highest authority in the country is not dealt with the requisite degree of firmness, not only will poeple’s faith in the Supreme Court will fade but also the confidence that judges of other courts in the country have in the Supreme Court will shake. “If such an attack is not dealt with, with requisite degree of firmness, it may affect the national honour and prestige in the comity of nations. Fearless and impartial courts of justice are the bulwark of a healthy democracy and the confidence in them cannot be permitted to be impaired by malicious attacks upon them.” The statement read.
“It may affect the national honour and prestige in the comity of nations.” The court said.
The court also made it a point to note that Bhushan who is a part of the Institution of Administration of Justice, who should have protected the law, himself indulged in such an act. The petition against Bhushan’s tweets was initiated by Advocate Mehek Maheswhari on July 9. But the case was only listed on July 22 as a contempt petition filed by a private individual even though, as per legal experts, should have the consent of the Attorney General before it can be listed before the Supreme Court for hearing. Maheshwari, unfortunately, held no consent. The case then decided to proceed suo moto.
Bhushan refused to make any apologies as he is firm that such freedom of speech is given in democracy and is not punishable.
The SC decided to continue the contempt proceedings in the case and hear it at length. That hearing was scheduled to start on August 17.
“In our considered view, the said tweet undermines the dignity and authority of the institution of the Supreme Court of India and the CJI and directly affronts the majesty of laws. The tweets which are based on the distorted facts, in our considered view, amount to committing criminal contempt,” The court ruled.
Against Bhushan, another suo moto case is pending from 2009 before the same bench for calling past chief justices corrupt in a 2009 interview to Tehelka magazine.
Bhushan, then had made efforts and offered an explanation for his statements but the Supreme Court refused to accept it and ruled it. Right after being held guilty for contempt of court, Bhushan, on Friday, along with Dushyant Dave, senior counsel presented themselves before another bench headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking inquiry for the alleged non-transparent manner in which the central government handled the Covid crisis.
The matter is now adjourned for hearing until next week.