Prashant Bhushan’s Tweet An ‘Affront To Majesty Of Law’, Supreme Court Says

Prashant Bhushan’s tweet against CJI SA Bobde amounts to contempt of court, says the apex court.

Lawyer Prashant Bhushan. Photo: PTI.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan. Photo: PTI.

The Supreme Court of India found Advocate Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court over his tweets against Chief Justice of India SA Bobde. The top court will hear arguments on sentencing on Aug. 20.

"The tweets which are based on the distorted facts, in our considered view, amount to committing of ‘criminal contempt’," said the Supreme Court bench of Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari.

The maximum sentence under the contempt law is six months or fine up to Rs 2,000 or both.

Judge As An Individual Vs Judge As A Judge

The contempt case against Bhushan was first taken up on July 22. A petition by a lawyer had highlighted Bhushan’s tweet, posted in June, in which he had tagged an image of Chief Justice Bobde sitting astride a Harley-Davidson bike. While the petition did not fulfill the procedural requirements to be listed for hearing, the court took suo motu cognisance and directed for the case to be listed for hearing.

“CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan Nagpur, without a mask or a helmet at a time when he keeps the SC in Lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice!’’ -  First Tweet by Prashant Bhushan.

The apex court made a distinction between when a statement is made against a judge as an individual versus in his capacity as a judge. The contempt jurisdiction would not be available for the former, the Supreme Court has said. But when the statement is made against a judge as a judge and has an adverse effect in the administration of justice, the court would certainly be entitled to invoke the contempt jurisdiction, it held.

Specifically on Bhushan’s tweet on the CJI, the apex court didn’t see the first part to be contemptuous as the criticism was made against the CJI as an individual. But the second part, it pointed out, which refers to the CJI denying citizens fundamental right to access justice during the lockdown amounts to criticism of the CJI "in his capacity as the Chief Justice of India i.e. the Administrative Head of the judiciary of the country".

The second part, the apex court added, is "patently false" as well. To contain the spread of the pandemic, the court was forced to restrict its physical hearings but it still continued virtual hearings and Bhushan himself appeared in many of those. A total of 12,748 cases have been heard by the court even when it was restricted to function over video conference.

The court has called Bhushan’s tweet as "undoubtedly false, 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.
Supreme Court In Prashant Bhushan Contempt Case

Tweet Affront To Majesty Of Law, Says Top Court

The second tweet was noticed by the court on the day of the first hearing in the case as it was published in a leading daily.

When historians in future look back at the last six years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the Supreme Court in this destruction & more particularly the role of the last 4 CJIs.’ - Second Tweet by Prashant Bhushan.

The Supreme Court didn't delve into the first part of the tweet but what it took exception to was Bhushan’s view on the role of the top court and its last four CJIs in what he called as the destruction of democracy.

This tweet was directed against the Supreme Court and tended to give an impression that the Supreme Court, particularly the last four CJIs, over the last six years have a particular role in destruction of democracy in the country.

The tweet has the effect of destabilizing the very foundation of this important pillar of the Indian democracy...the said tweet undermines the dignity and authority of the institution of the Supreme Court of India and the CJI and directly affronts the majesty of law.
Supreme Court in Prashant Bhushan Contempt Case

Prashant Bhushan had defended the tweets arguing that they were a well-intentioned critique of the top court and did not amount to scandalising the court.

The arguments also saw previous controversies surrounding the top court being pointed out to the bench by Bhushan’s lawyer Dushyant Dave.

A judge sits on a Saturday in his own case regarding sexual harassment. He hears cases such as Rafale, Ayodhya and CBI director cases and subsequently gets a seat in the Rajya Sabha with Z-plus category security. What impression does it give? These are serious issues that strike at the core of the judiciary.
Dushyant Dave’s Arguments In SC

During the hearing, Dave also highlighted the past work of Bhushan in Public Interest Litigation including cases such as the allocation of 2G spectrum licenses, the alleged coal scam case among others and requested the bench to not proceed with the case.

The top court took note of the submission but said keeping in mind his 30 years of experience in court, Bhushan was expected to act as a responsible officer of the court.

The scurrilous allegations, which are malicious in nature and have the tendency to scandalise the court are not expected from a person, who is a lawyer of 30 years standing.
Supreme Court On Prashant Bhushan

The verdict led to the media voicing its disappointment, including via editorials in three leading English newspapers.

Senior Advocate Akhil Sibal, in comments over email, called the verdict regrettable.

‘’People’s confidence in the judiciary is a matter of belief, not compulsion. Trust is created through action, not imposition,” Sibal told BloombergQuint. “The power of contempt can instill fear, it can never build faith in the institution.”

Also Read: What Happens In Prashant Bhushan’s Contempt Case After Guilty Verdict

“I’m suprised, indeed severely disappointed, that the Supreme Court decided to go ahead with a suo motu contempt case and convict Prashant Bhushan,” Senior Advocate Chander Uday Singh said.

The Court was plainly wrong in holding that his tweets scandalise the court, that they lower the institution of the judiciary; in my view such tweets aren’t even a remote threat to the judiciary. For a bench to imagine that the reputation and standing of the Supreme Court rests on such a weak foundation, actually diminishes the judiciary. This judgment certainly won’t clothe the Supreme Court in any glory.
Chander Uday Singh, Senior Advocate

This is not the only contempt case that Bhushan is facing in the top court. The Supreme Court is also hearing a 2009 contempt case which was initiated against Bhushan over his comments made to the Tehelka magazine. The bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra has decided to hear the case on merits after Bhushan filed his preliminary response in the case.

Also Read: Prashant Bhushan, The Question Of Contempt, And Motorcycle Diaries

Bhushan, along with Senior Journalist N Ram and Former Union Minister Arun Shourie, had also challenged the provisions of Contempt of Courts Act. The petition, however, was withdrawn yesterday.