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Was Prashant Bhushan Successful In His ‘Experiment With Truth’?

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The recently concluded case against activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan had the nation on the edge of its seat. Bhushan was charged by the Supreme Court of India with contempt of court, which initiated suo-motu proceedings against him for two of his tweets.

The first tweet had criticised the Chief Justice of India SA Bobde — photographed without wearing a mask or a helmet — sitting atop a Harley Davidson bike that apparently belonged to a BJP leader. In the second tweet, Mr Bhushan had said that the last six years have witnessed a slow degradation of democracy in India and historians would “mark the role of the Supreme Court in this destruction… particularly the role of the last 4 CJIs.” Subsequently, he was found guilty of contempt.

The trial and verdict have struck up a larger debate on the flexibility of the Court and its ability to accept criticism. The case, which had been going on since July 22, 2020, has garnered public attention in India as well as international quarters. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said that Mr Bhushan’s conviction seemed to be against the law that guarantees freedom of speech and expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

In its sentence, the top court of India imposed a token fine of one rupee on Mr Bhushan.

While a lot is being discussed about the various facets of the case and the verdict, an interesting — and nearly overlooked — part has been Justice Arun Mishra’s (one of the judges on the panel, now retired) reference to Mahatma Gandhi on the matter of apology. Justice Mishra had asked Mr Bhushan to tender an unconditional apology to the Court for his tweets, saying, “What is wrong in seeking (an) apology? You will go to the category of Mahatma Gandhi if you apologise. Gandhiji used to do that.”

One ought to understand Gandhi’s philosophy carefully before drawing such a parallel. Gandhi’s life was centred on three essential tenets: truth, non-violence and simple living. For this particular case, let’s look at the Mahatma’s concept of “truth” a little closely.

Prashant Bhushan 

Gandhi had never apologised for a belief he held strongly. Being a thinking man, he would spend hours (sometimes days) introspecting before pronouncing his opinion on significant matters. If he was in doubt or indecisive, he would take counsel of his trusted associates before reaching a decision. Taking an excerpt from Gandhi’s life would perhaps help investigate the veracity of the matter.

Gandhi had launched the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920 in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (April 1919), following the discriminatory Rowlatt Act (March 1919). He urged his countrymen to adopt civil disobedience (his famed method of satyagraha) and act in a completely non-violent manner while abstaining from cooperation with the Britishers. However, in early 1922, protestors leading a march took matters into their own hands and burnt down a police station in Chauri-Chaura, Gorakhpur, killing 22 policemen inside.

This incident, popularly known as the “Chauri-Chaura Incident,” compelled Gandhi, who felt morally responsible for not preparing his countrymen enough in the methods of non-violence, to go on a fast and halt the Non-Cooperation Movement with immediate effect. Nonetheless, he was charged with sedition by the British government for sponsoring hatred against the administration.

When he was called to court on the charge of sedition, he refused to apologise for protesting against the British government’s wrongful policies. He did, however, apologise for the wrongful actions of his countrymen, who took to violence against his advice. “Non-violence is the first article of my faith,” Gandhi had said. He, in fact, wished to bear their crime on himself and asked the judge, CN Broomfield, to submit him to the harshest punishment rather than a light penalty.

Now, one could draw a parallel on the matter of “apology” between that case against Gandhi, heard almost a hundred years ago, and the one against Prashant Bhushan — more so because the former’s name and his methods were espoused by the latter. Bhushan, when asked by the Supreme Court to apologise, said that it would be a “contempt of [his] conscience” if he apologised, and that his tweets were based on his “bonafide” beliefs. He also quoted the Mahatma, saying, “I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal to magnanimity. I am here, therefore, to cheerfully submit to any penalty that can be lawfully inflicted upon me for what the court has determined to be an offence…”

Even though it seemed that Gandhi’s philosophy and practice manifested itself in both the Judge’s and the accused’s remarks in Prashant Bhushan’s case, what the Supreme Court could have done, rather than encouraging Mr Bhushan to ‘elevate’ himself to the level of Gandhi, is elevate itself to the position of Judge Broomfield — who had presided over Gandhi’s trial in 1922.

During the trial, when prompted, Gandhi read out his statement in the court, saying, “… non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with good…” and offered to submit himself “cheerfully” to the highest penalty, within the ambit of law, for the violence committed by his countrymen on his watch.

Gandhi had launched the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920 in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (April 1919), following the discriminatory Rowlatt Act (March 1919). He urged his countrymen to adopt civil disobedience (his famed method of satyagraha) and act in a completely non-violent manner while abstaining from cooperation with the Britishers. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After listening to Gandhi’s statement, Judge Broomfield, addressing the ‘convict’ said, “…It will be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try …” Now, it is no secret that British judges were predisposed to act harshly against Indian convicts during the colonial period. There are several documented instances of British judges imposing vile punishments on Indians for the slightest of offences, while imposing lenient sentences on Englishmen for even heinous offences.

However, Judge Broomfield, an Englishman whose country’s authority had suffered a great deal of humiliation at the hands of Gandhi, looked at him not as the enemy, but as a man who had an opinion that he had every right to express, even if it criticised the British administration. At that moment, the judge was an impartial authority who was obligated to see the point of view of the ‘convict’ — even if it was contradictory to his own — before his ruling.

The Supreme Court of India could have extended the same courtesy to Bhushan and considered him a man who expressed his honest opinion, even if it was a critique of the functioning of the highest court of the land and its guardians.

Incidentally, the Supreme Court is the protector of the Indian Constitution – the very book of laws that proclaims that the fundamental rights of citizens — including the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression included in Article 19(1)(a) — are sacrosanct unless they violate any of the clauses mentioned in Article 19(2). Bhushan’s honest opinion did not seem to violate any of those clauses – at least according to an array of legal experts in India and around the world.

Despite taking the moralist method adopted by Gandhi to face challenges, Bhushan couldn’t hold his own all the way as the Mahatma did. The token fine of one rupee that was imposed on him may have been symbolic and immaterial, but Bhushan agreeing to pay the fine did not compliment the Gandhian principle of satyagraha. By “respectfully” accepting to pay the fine, Bhushan toed the line of the court – something Gandhi certainly never did.

Another example to prove this point: Gandhi was invited to Champaran in 1917 to address the plight of indigo farmers, who had been compelled by the British to grow indigo for little to no remuneration and were taxed heavily. After his return from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi was looked upon as a national hero and a messiah who could put an end to the many struggles the people had been facing under the discriminatory iron hand of the British Raj.

When he arrived in Champaran, he was greeted by hundreds of Indians who were eager to catch a glimpse of the Mahatma. The local British administration did not take well to his arrival in Champaran and served a notice to Gandhi, accusing him of encouraging public unrest. He, thus, appeared before the district court to defend himself.

Mahatma Gandhi being greeted by Indians upon arrival at a railway station

After hearing the matter, Judge George Chander ordered Gandhi to pay a bail amount of Rs 100 (a sum not small in any sense in 1917). Gandhi, however, refused to do so. By refusing, he risked a far harsher punishment, even life imprisonment. But Gandhi was certain that he had done nothing wrong and thus, he remained steadfast to his principles.

The judge, puzzled and helpless, had no choice but to release Gandhi on bail without the payment of a single rupee. Gandhi walked out of the courtroom an even greater hero and a paragon of truth, hailed by his compatriots with fervent cheers outside the court premises.

While Bhushan made every Indian – at least those who still believe in the inalienable freedom of speech and expression – proud by treading the Gandhian path and refusing to apologise for something he believed in strongly (despite the apparent willingness by the top court to display leniency in pronouncing its verdict if he did so) by agreeing to pay the fine, he seems to have wavered on his conviction. If he had refused to pay the sum of even one rupee, and thus risked a jail sentence on non-payment for something he believed to be morally correct, the nation would have hailed him at the status of a true ‘Mahatma’ indeed.

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