Earlier today, the Supreme Court of India found the senior advocate Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court. Bhushan was held guilty for two tweets where he had raised aspersions on the apex court, and specifically against the Chief Justice of India.
Soon after the verdict, detractors alleged that Bhushan had been targeted by the top court for his scathing comments on the Chief Justice of India. However, a deep-dive into the historic judgment passed by the Supreme Court reveals the distinction drawn by the apex court between criticising CJI as an individual and criticism in a judicial capacity, which allows invocation of contempt.
So unlike anarchists claim, the SC has held that it is NOT holding #PrashantBhushan in contempt for bike comment (comment against CJI as in individual) but for patently FALSE statement against CJI (as judge) that SC is in lock-down when court is hearing thousands of cases. 2/3 pic.twitter.com/LeViOKmC8k— Akhilesh Mishra (@amishra77) August 14, 2020
The Supreme Court judgment read that the first part of the first tweet: ‘CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, without a mask or a helmet’, could be categorised as criticism against the CJI as an individual and not against the CJI as CJI.
Prashant Bhushan lied about non-functioning of the Supreme Court during lockdown: SC judgment
However, it added that the second part of the tweet: ‘at a time when he keeps the SC in a lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental rights to access justice’, is a criticism of the Chief Justice of India in his capacity of the CJI. The contempt against Prashant Bhushan was invoked against this part of his tweet where he had lied that the CJI had kept the top court closed during the lockdown.
The judgment further mentions that though the physical hearing of the Supreme Court was suspended in the view of the coronavirus outbreak in the country, the court started functioning from March 23, 2020 to August 4, 2020, and various benches of the court have been sitting regularly and discharging their duties through video conferencing.
The total number of sittings during the period of 23.03.2020 to 04.08.2020 stands at 879 and the court had heard 12,748 matters.
The court has noted, “making such wild allegation thereby giving an impression, that the CJI is enjoying riding an expensive bike, while he keeps the SC in lockdown mode and thereby denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice, is undoubtedly false, malicious and scandalous. It has the tendency to shake the confidence of the public at large in the institution of judiciary and the institution of the CJI and undermining the dignity and authority of the administration of justice.”
Bhushan was one of the litigants at the SC during the lockdown
In fact, the judgment also goes on to cite the instance when Prashant Bhushan had approached the court during the lockdown, challenging an FIR filed against him at Bhaktinagar Police Station in Rajkot, Gujarat. The court had passed a judgment on the case on May 1, 2020.
“He has made such a scandalous and malicious statement having himself availed the right of an access to justice not just as a lawyer but also as a litigant,” the verdict read.
SC observed Prashant Bhushan’s second tweet was an attack on the institution of judiciary itself
In the second tweet, Bhushan had claimed that the Supreme Court of the country has played a role in destroying the democracy in the last 6 years, and last 4 CJIs had a crucial role in it.
Regards second tweet of #PrashantBhushan that SC has played a role in destroying democracy in last 6 years and last 4 CJIs had a special role – it is clearly not an attack on a judge or individual frailty but on the very SC institution itself. Classic case of contempt. 3/3 pic.twitter.com/G25i7kILAH— Akhilesh Mishra (@amishra77) August 14, 2020
The apex court observed that this insinuation by Bhushan is not an attack against an individual but on the institution itself and that the CJIs who presided over the court in the last 6 years, and particularly last 4, had a particular role in destroying the Indian democracy.
Slamming Bhushan for his tweet, the Supreme Court said, “The scurrilous allegations, which are malicious in nature and have the tendency to scandalize the Court are not expected from a person, who is a lawyer of 30 years standing. In our considered view, it cannot be said that the above tweets can be said to be a fair criticism of the functioning of the judiciary, made bona fide in the public interest.”
The Supreme Court also notes that tweets of Prashant Bhushan attempt to shake the public confidence on the judiciary, “which has the effect of destabilising the very foundation of this important pillar of the Indian democracy.” Saying that such attempt to shake the very foundation of constitutional democracy has to be dealt with an iron hand, the court added, “The tweet clearly tends to give an impression, that the Supreme Court, which is a highest constitutional court in the country, has in the last six years played a vital role in destruction of the Indian democracy. There is no manner of doubt, that the tweet tends to shake the public confidence in the institution of judiciary.”
The judgement declares that 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 law.