Opposition leaders, lawyers, human rights organisations on Friday criticised the Supreme Court’s decision to hold lawyer Prashant Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt in the suo motu case against him for his tweets posted in June. They called the top court’s judgement “alarming”, “blow to the rule of law” and a “dark day for the Indian democracy”.
Earlier in the day, a three-judge bench of Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari delivered the verdict. “A possibility of the other judges getting an impression that they may not stand protected from malicious attacks, when the Supreme Court has failed to protect itself from malicious insinuations, cannot be ruled out,” the court said in its 108-page judgement.
Bhushan’s first tweet commented about undeclared emergency and the role of Supreme Court and last four chief justices of India. Another tweet was about Chief Justice SA Bobde trying out a Harley Davidson superbike in his hometown Nagpur.
The hearing on the quantum of punishment will be held on August 20.
‘Why is your skin so thin?’
Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury called the verdict “alarming” and said it would prevent open and free discussion on the role of the Supreme Court in the country’s democracy. “It brings into the ambit of contempt, bona-fide criticism of the role played by Supreme Court as a constitutional authority,” Yechury said.
Lok Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress, Mahua Moitra, said on Twitter: “To the First Court of our land – remember YOU are the standard for millions of poor who even today say ‘I will go to Court’ – brute display of power does not become you. It shames us all.”
“If you have the law and truth behind you why is your skin so thin?” she asked.
‘Bleak future for free speech’
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde said that the Supreme Court’s order would discourage lawyers from speaking freely, HuffPost reported. “A silenced bar cannot lead to a strong court,” he added. “Prashant Bhushan joins the ranks of EMS Namboodiripad and Arundhati Roy in having been convicted by the Supreme Court on a charge of contempt. The judgment will add to textbooks on contempt, but will leave most readers wondering whether it does anything to restore the authority of the court in the eyes of the public.”
Advocate Indira Jaising said the judgement against Bhushan was because of a failure to distinguish between personal and the constitutional, The Quint reported. “I see a bleak future for free speech,” she told the website.
Meanwhile, another advocate Karuna Nundy said the threat of imprisonment is a “blow to the rule of law itself”. The Contempt of Court Act of 1971 punishes with imprisonment that may extend to six months or fine of Rs 2,000 or both.
Historians Ramachandra Guha and S Irfan Habib also condemned the judgement against Bhushan. Guha called it a “dark day for democracy”, whereas Habib pointed out that Bhushan was held guilty on the eve of the 74th Independence Day.
‘Verdict will reinforce view that SC will not allow questioning’
In a statement, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties said it is “dismayed and disappointed” by the verdict. “PUCL feels that the finding of the SC is not only unfortunate but will also have the contrary effect of lending substance to the view that just like how other democratic institutions in India are criminalising dissenters, the SC too is unwilling to acknowledge serious issues about the way the judicial system is functioning,” it said.
The organisation added that this would silence democratic voices using the draconian power of contempt of court. It referred to the January 2018 press conference of the Supreme Court’s senior-most judges, where they publicly voiced their disagreements against then CJI Dipak Misra of violating conventions and allowing the executive to interfere in the court’s affairs. “In particular, the issues raised by the four senior judges are central to the independence of the judiciary: manner of deciding the roster and composition and strength of benches, integrity of the judicial process, institutional integrity, transparency in appointment of judges, etc,” the statement said. “They had clearly and openly indicated that these vital principles have not just been flouted but ethically compromised.”
The PUCL said Bhushan was only articulating a view prevalent among many sections of the public, even if the language and content of the tweets may not be agreeable. “The correctness of Prashant Bhushan’s views about the role of former CJI’s may be debated, but the fact remains that many sections of society feel that the structures of democracy are being dismantled and destroyed before our very eyes and the constitutionally mandated institutions are failing to play their independent, monitoring role,” the statement read. “In such a situation, the SC, to which people still look up to with respect and hope, is increasingly being seen by people to be supportive of the state and unresponsive to democratic and constitutional concerns.”
The human rights organisation said the country should have a serious discussion to repeal contempt laws. “In our view, the conviction of Prashant Bhushan – well respected for doggedly fighting against corruption in high places, an indefatigable fighter for constitutional values and the ordinary citizen –for criminal contempt of court for the tweets will only reinforce the view amongst many sections of society that the SC will not allow any public questioning or criticism of its functioning and is not averse to using contempt laws to silence voices seeking transparency and accountability of the judiciary,” it said. “Ironically, it is this view which will be more damaging of the image of the SC rather than the import of the tweets of Prashant Bhushan.”