“We cannot countenance a situation where citizens live in fear of the Court’s arbitrary power to punish for contempt for words of criticism on the conduct of judges, in or out of court.” – Late Vinod Bobde, Senior Advocate and elder brother of CJI SA Bobde.
Many well-known citizens from the legal fraternity, former members of civil services and social activists expressed solidarity with Prashant Bhushan against the contempt case instituted against him by the Supreme Court of India.
On July 22, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari took suo moto cognizance of two “tweets” posted on social media site, Twitter, by Advocate Prashant Bhushan and initiated contempt proceedings against him. The bench stated that Bhushan’s tweets “have brought the administration of justice in disrepute and are capable of undermining the dignity and authority of the Institution of Supreme Court in general and the office of the Chief Justice of India in particular, in the eyes of public at large”.
The statement garnered over 130 signatures from prominent personalities from the legal community such as Justice Madan Lokur, Justice AP Shah, Advocates Mihir Desai, Vrinda Grover, Sanjay Hegde, Indira Jaising, among others. Many social activists were also in the list such as Medha Patkar, Teesta Setalvad, Harsh Mander, Javed Anand, among others. The signatories also included former public servants such as Admiral Ramdas, Julio Ribeiro (retd. IPS officer), N.C. Saxena (Retd. IAS officer) and many others.
The statement says that initiation of contempt proceedings against Bhushan appears to be an attempt to stifle criticism against the many decisions of the Supreme Court in the past few months which have not gone down well with the masses and have become a matter of concern. The statement points towards “reluctance of the Supreme Court to play its constitutionally mandated role as a check on governmental excesses and violations of fundamental rights” as well as its “reluctance to intervene in a timely manner to avert the migrant crisis during the lockdown” and further its decision “to not restart physical hearings, even in a limited manner, despite passage of five months since the onset of the Covid pandemic”.
It states that Bhushan’s tweets in question had simply pointed towards these concerns and were critical of the same. It states that the Supreme Court must be open to public discussion without the fear of retribution or action of criminal contempt. It also points out that the offence of criminal contempt has been rendered redundant by democracies like the United Kingdom and the USA and also cited one U.S. Supreme Court judgment New York Times v. L.B. Sullivan 11 L’ed (2nd) 686 whereby the judge held that “concern for the dignity and reputation of the courts does not justify the punishment as criminal contempt of criticism of the judge or his decision.”
The statement has urged the Supreme Court to withdraw the proceedings in the interest of justice and fairness and to maintain the dignity of the court.
The complete statement may be read here.