More than 3,000 members of civil society including former judges, retired bureaucrats, journalists and lawyers, on Monday criticised the Supreme Court’s order to hold advocate Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt for his tweets on the judiciary. The signatories said that expressing concern about the functioning of the judiciary was the fundamental right of every citizen.

The signatories include former Supreme Court judges Ruma Pal, B Sudershan Reddy, Madan B Lokur, human rights activist Harsh Mander and historian Romila Thapar.

They said in their statement that the Supreme Court should have taken Bhushan’s criticism in spirit. “The intention of that expression was to urge the apex court to restart physical hearings, particularly of matters of national importance,” the signatories said. “The intention was also to engage with the concerns articulated by many regarding the reluctance of the judiciary to play its constitutionally mandated role as a check on governmental excesses and violations of fundamental rights by the state.”

The signatories added that the top court’s judgement against Bhushan was “disproportionate” and could damage its reputation. “If a tweet by an individual is perceived by the judiciary as destroying public confidence in the institution, it speaks poorly of the judiciary’s confidence in itself,” the signatories said in their statement.

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One of Bhushan’s tweets had commented on an “undeclared emergency” in India and the role of the Supreme Court and the last four chief justices. The second tweet remarked on photos of Chief Justice SA Bobde trying out a Harley Davidson superbike in his hometown Nagpur, which had gone viral.

The signatories said that the judgement against Bhushan will have a “chilling effect” on people expressing critical views about the judiciary. “Stifling of criticism by stakeholders does not bode well for any institution, especially the highest court in the country,” they said.

They added that the haste with which the top court took up hearing Bhushan’s case was questioned even by former Chief Justice of India Rajendra Mal Lodha.

More than 1,800 members of the Bar have also criticised the Supreme Court’s decision to hold Bhushan guilty of contempt over his tweets. Besides this, Opposition leaders, lawyers, and human rights organisations had criticised the top court’s verdict, saying it is “alarming”, and a “blow to the rule of law”. The hearing on the quantum of Bhushan’s punishment will be held on August 20.

Bhushan, meanwhile, told the Supreme Court on Sunday that corruption allegations against the judiciary must fall under the ambit of free speech. The next day, the top court decided to launch an inquiry into the circumstances under which a person can make public allegations of corruption against the judiciary. The three-judge bench led by Justice Arun Mishra also decided to hear arguments on a procedure to be used by courts if the comments are made in public against sitting and retired judges.