“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.”
Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari, JJ has, in a 108-pages long verdict, held advocate Prashant guilty of criminal contempt in the suo motu contempt petition initiated against him after he criticised the Supreme Court and the sitting and former CJIs in a couple of tweets. It held,
“The tweets which are based on the distorted facts, in our considered view, amount to committing of ‘criminal contempt’.
Stating that in order to protect the larger public interest, such attempts of attack on the highest judiciary of the country should be dealt with firmly, the Court noticed that Advocate Bhushan has been practicing for last 30 years in the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court and has consistently taken up many issues of public interest concerning the health of our democracy and its institutions and in particular the functioning of our judiciary and especially its accountability. Bhushan being part of the institution of administration of justice, instead of protecting the majesty of law has indulged into an act, which tends to bring disrepute to the institution of administration of justice. He is expected to act as a responsible officer of this Court.
Stressing upon the importance of Judiciary and the need to protect the institution of the Supreme Court from malicious attacks, the Court said that judiciary is considered as a last hope when a citizen fails to get justice anywhere. The Supreme Court is the epitome of the Indian judiciary. An attack on the Supreme Court does not only have the effect of tending an ordinary litigant of losing the confidence in the Supreme Court but also may tend to lose the confidence in the mind of other judges in the country in its highest court. 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.
“No doubt, that the Court is required to be magnanimous, when criticism is made of the judges or of the institution of administration of justice. However, such magnanimity cannot be stretched to such an extent, which may amount to weakness in dealing with a malicious, scurrilous, calculated attack on the very foundation of the institution of the judiciary and thereby damaging the very foundation of the democracy.”
What prompted the Court to initiate the contempt proceedings
The matter deals with certain tweets made by Bhushan. He had recently criticised the Supreme Court and the sitting and former CJIs in a couple of tweets which prompted the Supreme Court to initiate suo motu contempt petition against him. Here are the tweets:
On Tweet 1
Advocate Bhushan told the Court that the said tweet is divided the tweet into 3 parts:
- First part: democracy has been substantially destroyed in India during the last six years.
- Second part: the Supreme Court has played a substantial role in allowing the destruction of the democracy
- Third part: the role of the last 4 Chief Justice’s in particular in allowing it.
While the Court did not go into the truthfulness or otherwise of the first part of the tweet, inasmuch as it did not want to convert the proceeding into a platform for political debate, it said that the said the remaining parts of the tweet undermine the dignity and authority of the institution of the Supreme Court of India and the CJI and directly affronts the majesty of law.
Stating that an attempt to shake the very foundation of constitutional democracy has to be dealt with an iron hand, the Court said that the tweet has the effect of destabilising the very foundation of this important pillar of the Indian democracy.
“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.”
It further noticed that there cannot be any manner of doubt, that the said tweet is directed against the Supreme Court, tending to give an impression, that the Supreme Court has a particular role in the destruction of democracy in the last six years and the last four CJIs had a more particular role in the same. It is clear, that the criticism is against the entire Supreme Court and the last four CJIs.
“The criticism is not against a particular judge but the institution of the Supreme Court and the institution of the Chief Justice of India. The impression that the said tweet tends to convey is that the judges who have presided in the Supreme Court in the period of last six years have particular role in the destruction of Indian democracy and the last four CJIs had a more particular role in it.”
Even on Bhushan’s own admission, he has expressed his opinion, that the Supreme Court has played a substantial role in allowing the destruction of democracy and further admitted, that the third part is regarding the role of last four Chief Justices in particular, in allowing it.
ों Tweet 2
This tweet was also considered in two parts:
- First part: “CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur without a mask or helmet…”
- Second part: “…at a time when he keeps the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental rights to access justice.”
While the Court noticed that the first part of the tweet could be said to be a criticism made against the CJI as an individual and not against the CJI as CJI. However, the second part of the tweet attempts to give and impression to a layman that the CJI is riding a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur without a mask or helmet, at a time when he has kept the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice.
On this the Court said that the date on which the CJI is alleged to have taken a ride on a motorbike is during the period when the Supreme Court was on a summer vacation. In any case, even during the said period, the vacation Benches of the Court were regularly functioning.
The statement, that the Supreme Court is in lockdown is factually incorrect even to the knowledge of the contemnor. It is a common knowledge, that on account of COVID-19 pandemic the physical functioning of the Court was required to be suspended. This was in order to avoid mass gathering in the Supreme Court and to prevent outbreak of pandemic. However, immediately after suspension of physical hearing, the Court started functioning through video conferencing.
“From 23.3.2020 till 4.8.2020, various benches of the Court have been sitting regularly and discharging their duties through video conferencing. The total number of sittings that the various benches had from 23.3.2020 till 4.8.2020 is 879. During this period, the Court has heard 12748 matters. In the said period, this Court has dealt with 686 writ petitions filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India.”
The Court refused to accept the contention that the said statement was a bona fide criticism made by him on account of his anguish of non-functioning of the courts physically. His contention, that on account of non-physical functioning of the Supreme Court for the last more than three months, the fundamental rights of citizens, such as those in detention, those destitute and poor, and others facing serious and urgent grievances were not being addressed or taken up for redressal, as stated herein above, is false to his own knowledge.
“He has made such a scandalous and malicious statement having himself availed the right of an access to justice during the said period, not only as a lawyer but also as a litigant.”
[In Re Prashant Bhushan, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 646, decided on 14.08.2020]