New Delhi: Attorney general K.K. Venugopal staved off another controversy over attempts to restrain free speech when he declined to consent to the initiation of criminal contempt proceedings against Prashant Bhushan for his tweets in which he was critical of Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde being provided a special helicopter by the Madhya Pradesh government. Venugopal said that the activist-lawyer has already expressed regret for his comments.
On October 21, Bhushan, who had been held guilty of contempt earlier this year for tweets that were critical of the CJI, tweeted to say that the CJI used the special helicopter to visit the Kanha national park even while “an important case of disqualification of defecting MLAs of MP (Madhya Pradesh) is pending before him”.
“Survival of the MP govt depends on this case,” he added.
However, on November 4, he expressed his regret and said in a subsequent tweet, “Elections were held yesterday to seats of defecting Cong MLAs in MP who were made ministers in the Shivraj Govt. The survival of the Shivraj govt will depend on their re-election, not on the decision of the case in CJIs court challenging their ministership. I regret this error in my tweet below.”
Elections were held yesterday to seats of defecting Cong MLAs in MP who were made ministers in the Shivraj Govt. Survival of Shivraj govt will depend on their re-election, not on decision of case in CJIs court challenging their ministership. I regret this error in my tweet below https://t.co/SkX86iuJuS
— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) November 4, 2020
Sunil Singh, an advocate, sought the AG’s consent to initiate contempt proceedings against Bhushan, saying that the lawyer-activist had connected “the personal life of CJI with a pending case before him”.
Hearing his appeal, Venugopal termed Bhushan’s tweet as “wholly unwarranted, improper, devoid of legal basis, and prima facie contumacious” but declined to give his consent for contempt proceedings considering the regret expressed in his later tweet.
“I am of the opinion that the imputations contained in three tweets to the effect that the Chief Justice of India committed an act of impropriety in accepting facilities of the state of Madhya Pradesh during his visit to Kanha National Park while a case pertaining to the disqualification of certain members of the legislative assembly of MP was pending before him were wholly unwarranted, improper, devoid of legal basis and prima facie contumacious…”, Venugopal said in his response to Sunil Singh’s plea.
However, he added, “I do not think it would be in public interest to give consent for proceeding on the basis of the original tweet in view of the subsequent tweet expressing regret.”
Defending Justice Bobde, the AG said the CJI is one of the highest constitutional functionaries in the country and is entitled to receive special arrangements as befits the stature of his office. He is entitled to be extended appropriate security, Venugopal observed. He added that the CJI was visiting a Maoist-affected region, and that is why he was given the helicopter facility.
“It was therefore, the most prudent and appropriate measure for the state government to have the CJI transported via a helicopter. The imputation of impropriety therefore was improper and without application of mind to these realities and is contumacious,” Venugopal said.
The AG said that Bhushan’s attempt to link the CJI’s visit with the disqualification case against some Congress MLAs who had joined the BJP and were appointed as ministers in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government “was also improper”. He said that the CJI is entitled to special benefits in any event, and even in this case “…the fate of MP government did not depend on the outcome of the said case, as the resignations of the said MLAs had already been accepted by the previous speaker.”
A bench headed by the CJI, on November 4, disposed of a plea that had raised the issue of pendency of disqualification proceedings against the Congress MLAs.
(With PTI Inputs)