Supreme Court judgment on contempt alarming; Creates bad precedent hampering free speech and fair criticism of judiciary: lawyers bodies
By Abdul Bari Masoud
New Delhi: Prominent lawyers associations on Saturday expressed deep concern and anguish over the judgment of the Supreme Court finding noted advocate and activist, Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt for his two tweets. They warned that the judgment would create a bad precedent hampering free speech and fair criticism of the Supreme Court and the judiciary.
All India Lawyers Union (AILU) said it is very much concerned about the judgment and its negative and chilling impact on bona-fide and fair criticism of the judiciary. P V Surendranath, General Secretary, AILU, termed the judgment as “alarming and yet another self inflicted wound on the Supreme Court”.
He said it should trigger an informed debate over abolition of the criminal contempt under contempt of court act and undefined unregulated contempt jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 129 of the Constitution of India.
Speaking in the same vein, another lawyers’ body, the All India Lawyers Council (AILC) said Bhushan’s tweets may hardly be called as ‘contemptuous and disdainful’ who has emerged a conscience keeper in a rather gloomy political scenario in the country. Advocate Sharfuddin Ahmad, general secretary, AILC, said at a time when so-called secular parties are failing, Bhushan has shown courage to speak the truth.
Except communist parties, every party is trying to appease the communal constituency and is vying with each other to placate Brahmins by announcing to erect 108 feet tall statue of Lord Parashuram, he said.
Lauding the courage of Bhushan, Ahmad said he is in the making of JP (Jai Prakash) and he is a rare fearless voice in the country who dares to speak truth for safeguarding the democracy.
While the bench of Justices Arun Mishra, B.R. Gavai, and Krishna Murari, in its judgment on Friday held that these tweets had shaken the “very foundation of constitutional democracy”.
In the first tweet which the court found contemptuous, Bhushan said:
“CJI rides a 50 Lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan Nagpur, without a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC in Lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access Justice!”
The bench’s argument about the second tweet, likewise, has no legs to stand on. The text of this tweet reads:
“When historians in future look back at the last 6 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.”
Surendranath said these tweets could be termed as only opinion. In the contempt judgment the Supreme Court said that “we are not concerned with the first part of the Tweet since it is not concerned with this Court”.
Court also held “We don’t want to go into the truthfulness or otherwise of the first part of the Tweet in as much as we don’t want to convert these proceedings into a platform for political debate”.
So, ultimately whether there has been destruction of democracy in India during the last six years even without a formal emergency is a political question and political opinion protected by freedom of expression and free speech under Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India, by which bona-fide fair criticism of the Supreme Court, its judges and the judiciary is protected, he added.
He said the judgments of the Supreme Court in various milestone cases such as A K Gopalan case, Bank nationalization case, Keshavananda Bharati case, A D M Jabalpur case, Maneka Gandhi case, S R Bommai case, Fourth judges case, Privacy judgment, Aadhar case, Sabarimala case etc. have got immense impact on democracy in India.
Whether the impact is positive or negative is only a matter of opinion and it is rather a political question than juridical, he added.
He further underlined that “Unfortunately the regret expressed by Prashant Bhushan, the contemptner in the Tweet no. 1, by way of clarification that he omitted to notice the fact that the bike was on its stand and not moving is not considered in its proper spirit by holding him guilty for the contempt on this tweet as well.
In statement of P Shiv Sankar’s case, a former judge of High Court and Union Law Minister P Shiv Sankar said that Supreme Court was composed of elements from elite class that because they had their unconcealed sympathy for the haves is held to be not a statement in contempt of court.
Lawyers bodies expressed the hope that the Supreme Court itself would recall the contempt judgment against Prashant Bhushan by any curative process review or otherwise because it would cause a chilling effect on free speech and bona-fide and fair criticism of judiciary and the Supreme Court on its role in Indian democracy.