The Supreme Court on Friday discarded its traditional “dogs may bark, the caravan will pass” approach and made an example of advocate Prashant Bhushan by holding him guilty of criminal contempt of court for his two “false and malicious” tweets.
In their unanimous 108-page judgment, a bench of Justices Arun Mishra, B R Gavai and Krishna Murari said Bhushan’s tweets — one accusing the CJI of riding a Rs 50-lakh motorbike while keeping the SC closed and the other saying that the present and four former CJIs played a role in the destruction of democracy in the last six years — were a calculated attempt to scandalise the CJI and the SC and denigrate the institution of judiciary in the eyes of the people to shake their intrinsic faith in it.
Pronouncing the judgment and thereby indicating he was its author, Justice Gavai read out just one sentence, “We hold Prashant Bhushan guilty of having committed criminal contempt of this court.” The bench asked Bhushan’s counsel Dushyant Dave to address the court on the quantum of punishment on August 20.
Interestingly, the SC did not resort to the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 in convicting Bhushan. It used its inherent powers under Article 129 of the Constitution to punish for contempt of itself. While the Contempt of Court Act provides a maximum sentence of six months for criminal contempt, Article 129 does not provide an outer limit.
Referring to Bhushan’s motorbike tweet, the SC said, “The said tweet is capable of giving an impression to a layman that the CJI is enjoying his ride on a motorbike worth Rs 50 lakh belonging to a BJP leader at a time when he has kept the Supreme Court in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice.”
The SC said courts were never closed, except that physical hearing was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “From March 23 till August 4, various benches of the court have been sitting regularly and discharging their duties through video-conferencing. During this period, the court has heard 12,748 cases. In the said period, this court has dealt with 686 writ petitions, including many PILs which were argued by Bhushan,” it added.
The bench said Bhushan also personally moved the SC challenging registration of an FIR against him in Rajkot and had got protection from arrest.
“Making such wild allegations… is 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. We are unable to accept the contention of Bhushan that the said statement was a bona fide criticism made by him on account of his anguish of non-functioning of courts physically,” Justices Mishra, Gavai and Murari said.
On Bhushan’s tweet on destruction of democracy and role of the present and previous four CJIs, the SC said an ordinary citizen would perceive that “when historians in future look back, the impression they will get is that in the last six years, democracy has been destroyed in India without even a formal Emergency and that the Supreme Court had a particular role in the said destruction and the last four Chief Justices of India had more particular role”.
“Bhushan being part of the institution of administration of justice, instead of protecting the majesty of law has indulged in an act which tends to bring disrepute… Bhushan is expected to act as a responsible officer of this court. The scurrilous allegations… are not expected from a person who is a lawyer of 30 years’ standing…” it said.
“The tweet has the effect of destabilising the very foundation of this important pillar of the Indian democracy… and directly affronts the majesty of law,” it add