Prashant Bhushan’s Contempt Petition

In Re Prashant Bhushan, SUO MOTU CONTEMPT PETITION (CRL.) NO.1 OF 2020 Decided on: 14.08.2020 Bench Supreme Court of India: Justice Arun Mishra, Justice BR Gavai and Justice Krishna Murari

Issue: Following tweets by Sr. Advocate Prashant Bhushan led to the Contempt Petition against him:-

Criminal Content and Criminal Defamation (Indian Penal Code)

The definition of criminal contempt of Court has been provided under Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The main aim of the Contempt Law is to maintain and uphold the dignity and respect of the Courts, in the eyes of the public and to deter men from offering any indignities to a court of justice.

The definition of Criminal Defamation has been enshrined under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The main aim of Criminal Defamation is to prevent the person from maligning or harming the reputation of other person with malafide intentions. It is also based on the principle that right to dignity is an important aspect of right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The action for criminal defamation can be initiated by an aggrieved person against the accused, whereas for criminal contempt of Court, action can be initiated suo motu by Supreme Court or High Court.

Decision

“The tweets which are based on the distorted facts, in our considered view, amount to committing of ‘criminal contempt’.

Apex Court was of the view that in order to protect the larger public interest; such attempts of attack on the highest judiciary of the country should be dealt with firmly. It also stressed upon the importance of Judiciary and the need to protect the institution of the Supreme Court from malicious attacks. The Court said that judiciary is considered as a last hope when a citizen fails to get justice anywhere.

An attack on the Supreme Court does not only have the effect of tending an ordinary litigant of losing the confidence in the Supreme Court but also may tend to lose the confidence in the mind of other judges in the country in its highest court. A possibility of the other judges getting an impression that they may not stand protected from malicious attacks, when the Supreme Court has failed to protect itself from malicious insinuations, cannot be ruled out.

“No doubt, that the Court is required to be magnanimous, when criticism is made of the judges or of the institution of administration of justice. However, such magnanimity cannot be stretched to such an extent, which may amount to weakness in dealing with a malicious, scurrilous, calculated attack on the very foundation of the institution of the judiciary and thereby damaging the very foundation of the democracy.”

Analysing Tweets

Tweet 1:

Advocate Bhushan told the Court that the said tweet is divided the tweet into 3 parts:

First part: democracy has been substantially destroyed in India during the last six years.

Second part: the Supreme Court has played a substantial role in allowing the destruction of the democracy

Third part: the role of the last 4 Chief Justice’s in particular in allowing it.

The Court did not look into the truthfulness of the first part of the tweet because it did not want to convert the proceeding into an arena for political debate. It said that the remaining parts of the tweet undermine the dignity and authority of the Supreme Court of India and the CJI and directly affronts the majesty of law.

Stating that an attempt to shake the very foundation of constitutional democracy has to be dealt with an iron hand, the Court said that the tweet has the effect of destabilizing the very foundation of this important pillar of the Indian democracy.

“The tweet clearly tends to give an impression, that the Supreme Court, which is a highest constitutional court in the country, has in the last six years played a vital role in destruction of the Indian democracy. There is no manner of doubt that the tweet tends to shake the public confidence in the institution of judiciary.”

 “The criticism is not against a particular judge but the institution of the Supreme Court and the institution of the Chief Justice of India. The impression that the said tweet tends to convey is that the judges who have presided in the Supreme Court in the period of last six years have particular role in the destruction of Indian democracy and the last four CJIs had a more particular role in it.”

Analysis Of Tweet 2:

This tweet was also considered in two parts:

First part: “CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur without a mask or helmet…”

Second part: “…at a time when he keeps the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental rights to access justice.”

While the Court noticed that the first part of the tweet could be said to be a criticism made against the CJI as an individual and not against the CJI as CJI. However, the second part of the tweet attempts to give and impression to a layman that the CJI has kept the SC in lockdown denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice.

On this the Court said that the date on which the CJI is alleged to have taken a ride on a motorbike is during the period when the Supreme Court was on a summer vacation. In any case, even during the said period, the vacation Benches of the Court were regularly functioning.

The statement that the Supreme Court is in lockdown is factually incorrect even to the knowledge of the contemnor. It is a common knowledge that on account of COVID-19 pandemic the physical functioning of the Court was required to be suspended. This was in order to avoid mass gathering in the Supreme Court and to prevent outbreak of pandemic. However, immediately after suspension of physical hearing, the Court started functioning through video conferencing.

“From 23.3.2020 till 4.8.2020, various benches of the Court have been sitting regularly and discharging their duties through video conferencing. The total number of sittings that the various benches had from 23.3.2020 till 4.8.2020 is 879. During this period, the Court has heard 12748 matters. In the said period, this Court has dealt with 686 writ petitions filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India.”

The Court refused to accept the contention that the said statement was a bona fide criticism made by him on account of his anguish of non-functioning of the courts physically.

“He has made such a scandalous and malicious statement having himself availed the right of an access to justice during the said period, not only as a lawyer but also as a litigant.”

The Court, therefore, rejecting all of Prashant Bhushan’s arguments held him guilty of Criminal Contempt of Court.

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