Contempt of court, the law and the people

‘Posterity will treat you kindly, even if the Supreme Court doesn’t,’ quipped a lawyer present in court on Thursday to Prashant Bhushan

Prashant Bhushan (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Prashant Bhushan (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
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NHS Bureau

Two tweets from civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan in June this year elicited a 108-page response by the Supreme Court on August 14. It held him guilty for contempt of court in just about 22 days.

On August 20 it allowed him 2-3 days’ time to reconsider his statement despite Bhushan standing his ground. The rigid stance of the court and the fact that it has also resumed hearing a contempt case filed against him by celebrity lawyer Harish Salve in 2009 left Bhushan with little elbow room.

Bhushan, however, told the court that he would paraphrase what Mahatma Gandhi had said at his trial and assert, “I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal to magnanimity.”

His tweets represented his bona fide beliefs and he stood by them. It would be a waste of time of the court and serve no useful purpose if the court allowed him time to reconsider his statement, he informed.

A fellow lawyer tweeted that Bhushan had dropped out of IIT, Madras and Princeton University to become a lawyer. “He has been listening to his heart since his days in IIT, Madras. You think he will change his stand in two days? Good luck”.

The legal fraternity is however divided with Bar Councils of Maharashtra and Goa coming out in support of the verdict holding Bhushan guilty. But 1,500 lawyers from across the country came out with a statement saying, “This judgment does not restore the authority of the court in the eyes of the public. Rather, it will discourage lawyers from being outspoken”.

Last month seven former Supreme Court judges had asked the Supreme Court to withdraw proceedings against Prashant Bhushan. They were Justices Ruma Pal, G.S. Singhvi, A.K. Ganguly, Gopala Gowda, Aftab Alam, Jasti Chelameswar and Vikramjit Sen. The statement was also signed among others by former Delhi HC chief Justice A.P. Shah, ex-Patna HC judge Anjana Prakash, historian Ramachandra Guha, author Arundhati Roy, activist Harsh Mander and lawyer Indira Jaising.

In a tweet on 27 June, Bhushan had written about the “role of the Supreme Court” in the “destruction” of democracy during the last six years, and had also mentioned the “role of the last 4 CJIs” in it. His second tweet on 29 June commented on CJI S.A. Bobde astride a Harley Davidson bike.

Lawyers point out that the Supreme Court has not had the time to address challenges against suspension of Article 370 in Kashmir, against Electoral Bonds, against the Citizenship Amendment Act and various Habeas Corpus petitions filed by Kashmiris. Petitions against electoral bonds are pending before the Supreme Court for the past three years, though it is likely to be heard in the first week of September. Petitions against the abrogation of Article 370 have also been pending for more than a year.

Retired Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur put things in perspective when he pointed out that one of the tweets by Prashant Bhushan was an opinion which did not constitute contempt of court.

“Some historians have a charitable opinion of Mughal rule, others don’t. Some historians have a charitable opinion of the Raj, others don’t. Some historians have a charitable opinion of some of our early post-independence leaders, others don’t. Similarly, some future historians might view the role of the Chief Justices of India in a charitable manner, while others will not. Do we need uniformity of opinion in every aspect of life, including governance and justice? Is disagreement and dissent unpalatable?”, he wondered.

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