Prashant Bhushan has fought many battles in the courtroom over his three decades career as a lawyer and public activist. And today he stands in the hallways of the court again fighting a battle against the highest level of judiciary in the country, fighting a case of contempt against the Supreme Court. And it makes me wonder how free is the freedom of speech and expression in the largest democracy in the world. I’ll examine this case by weighing the sides and arguments of both the parties and leaving the reader to be the best judge.
Prashant Bhushan tweeted about the degradation of democracy and how the present CJI, Bobde was inhibiting access to justice by keeping the court in lockdown mode while he was enjoying leisure time riding on a bike. The second contempt case against Bhushan is a decade old in which he had expressed his grievance at the degradation of the democracy and made allegation of conflict of interest against CJI S.H. Kapadia.
The SC took suo moto cognizance of the matter and put Bhushan to trail for his scathing remarks on the judiciary. The court found his tweets factually incorrect and to an extent, they were. Bhushan pointed out that Sharad Bobde was not wearing a helmet and later recognised the fact that Bobde was sitting on a bike that was on a stand and hence a helmet was out of the question. Secondly, Bhushan had presented concern over the slack of the justice department during the crisis however the Court argued that it had been holding cases via virtual conferencing and only selected cases were postponed for a physical hearing when the crisis ended. Furthermore, Bhushan himself had been a part of such virtual trials both as a lawyer and litigant.
Thirdly, the court pointed out that Bhushan’s comments weren’t that of a layman’s. Bhushan is not someone who can say anything and expect no consequences of his statements. The very fact that he is a lawyer in the Supreme Court associates a sense of responsibility to him and his remarks are bound to be heard by the public at large. Several lawyers have stood up in favour of the Court’s stance and argued that the Court shouldn’t be used as a punching bag. It was also stated that it is important to address baseless allegations made against the Court to maintain its dignity and honour in the eyes of the Indian people.
However, Bhushan has stood firm by his remarks. He has refused to take back his remarks or issue a statement of apology. His argument is based around the fact that healthy criticism of the judiciary is a must in a mature democracy and his remarks were just an exercise of his fundamental rights and not a personal attack. Around 1600 lawyers including many senior lawyers have come out in support of Bhushan and requested the Court to adhere to its precedence of advocating for the protection of the fundamental rights.
Group of citizens, incl retired judges & bureaucrats, write to CJI, over people criticising SC's conviction of lawyer Prashant Bhushan in a contempt case; state, "Unfortunate when political ends of lawyers aren't served by court decision, they vilify it with scandalizing remarks" pic.twitter.com/o3Ld6U787L
— ANI (@ANI) August 19, 2020
The dignity that the judiciary today holds in the eyes of the people is due to its diligence towards justice and its fearlessness and liberal perspective to crucial judgments. And that dignity cannot be shaken down by a man’s words no matter how important. In many countries, the Court’s power to hold people in contempt is considered a relic of the past and the democratic judiciary has often adopted a liberal viewpoint towards criticism.
Even the judiciary is not perfect, it cannot be and is hence not immune to criticism. The court stands firm on is a stance that it must take Bhushan to the task to maintain public good faith in the judicial institutions. However, the court must judge the people’s reaction when it sees the highest court in the country going after an individual who had made a tweet that half the people talking about the case now were not even aware of before.
Is the SC risking its reputation as that of a liberal institution in issuing a case of contempt against Bhushan? This judgement will be crucial in determining the stand of the judiciary and will set a precedence for not only the judiciary but also for journalists and freedom of speech advocates. This judgement will prove exactly how free is freedom in this democracy.