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Contempt proceedings: dignitaries urge SC to reconsider decision

Prashant Bhushan moves SC looking for an intra-court request in hatred feelings

Over 130 dignitaries urged the top court to “reconsider” and “withdraw” its decision to “initiate suo-motu contempt proceedings” against Bhushan.

On 21stJuly, the SC initiated suo motu criminal contempt proceedings against advocate Prashant Bhushan and social media platform Twitter India. The next day, the top court issued notices to Bhushan. It was due to the lawyer’s alleged two derogatory tweets against the judiciary. It had also sought the assistance of Attorney General K K Venugopal in the case. The case will be heard again on August 5.

A bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra said Bhushan’s tweets had brought administration of justice into disrepute. And are capable of undermining the dignity and authority of the SC in general and the office of the CJI in particular, in the eyes of the public at large”. The three-judge bench comprised of Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari. The court suggested that Twitter should disable Bhushan’s alleged contemptuous tweets.

Mr. Bhusan was critical of the way in which SC handled the matters relating migrant workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In one of the tweets, made on June 27,

Bhushan claimed that the “role of the Supreme Court” in the “destruction of democracy” and “role of the last 4 CJIs” must be examined. The second tweet, made on June 29, the advocate commented on CJI Bobde’s photo on an expensive bike. He questioned the CJI for being seen without a helmet or face mask while keeping the SC in “lockdown mode”.

Several prominent citizens including former judges have expressed solidarity with Prashant Bhushan. Also that the contempt proceedings initiated against him by the Supreme Court appears to be an “attempt at stifling” criticism of the court. Which is not just by the advocate but by all skeholders in the Indian democratic and constitutional setup.

Besides Justices Lokur and Shah, senior advocates Anand Grover, C U Singh, Gopal Sankaranarayanan, Sanjay Hegde, historian Ramachandra Guha, former CIC Wajahat Habibullah, author Arundhati Roy, and Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India are among the signatories.

Statement in solidarity with Mr. Prashant Bhushan on the initiation of Criminal Contempt Proceedings against him

The signatories described him as a “relentless crusader for the rights of the weakest sections of our society”. Also has spent his career in pro bono legal service to those who do not have ready access to justice.

The group called the Supreme Court’s decision to initiate suo motu contempt proceedings an “attempt at stifling criticism”. A statement of solidarity was released by the prominent citizen group on Monday.

The signatories argued that Bhushan only articulated some of the concerns raised about the functioning of the apex court. The statement urged the court to withdraw its case “in the interest of justice and fairness and to maintain the dignity of the Supreme Court of India”.

The signatories highlighted the statement of senior advocate Vinod A. Bobde. CJI S.A. Bobde’s elder brother. Which reads as -there cannot be 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”.

The statement included that an institution as important as the Supreme Court of a country must be open to public discussion. Which should be without any fear of retribution or action of criminal contempt.

The statement noted that in past few years, serious questions have been raised against the Supreme Court of India. As the court is reluctant to play its constitutionally mandated role. That is to act as a check on government excesses and violation of fundamental rights of people by the state.

These questions have been raised by all sections of the society. These includes media, academic, civil society organisations, members of the legal fraternity. And even by sitting and retired judges of the Supreme Court itself.  More recently, the Supreme Court’s reluctance to intervene in a timely manner to avert the migrant crisis during the lockdown came under immense public scrutiny.”

Criminal contempt as an offence has been circumscribed and made redundant in most functioning democracies, like America, UK, signatories said. Even in India, the criticism of judiciary should not be stifled by the indiscriminate use of the power of contempt. The same has been recognized by the Supreme Court as well as by academics and advocates of repute.

These comments must be read in the context of the tweets by Bhushan for which he is facing contempt proceedings.