In strong and outspoken criticism of the Supreme Court’s conviction of Prashant Bhushan for contempt, Arun Shourie has said the apex court’s hypersensitivity to Bhushan’s tweets “betrays a nervousness and anxiety … an insecurity bordering on paranoia”.
In its 108 page judgement, the Supreme Court claims that if no action is taken against Bhushan for his 2 tweets “it may affect the national honour and prestige in the comity of nations”. How can two tweets do this, Arun Shourie asked.
“If a puff of two tweets can shake the central pillar of the largest democracy in the world”, he added, that reveals the judiciary’s own view of how weak it has become.
In a 40-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Arun Shourie said that he had no doubt judges have assisted in the erosion of democracy. In fact, he went further and said they were guilty of assisting in an assault on democracy. “I say this as a person who knows Modi better than the judges. Democracy has been eroded. Have they assisted in it? … they should look at the mirror and ask themselves that question.”
Shourie said Prashant Bhushan’s tweet alleging the Supreme Court and the last four chief justices have played a particular role in destroying democracy “is an understatement”. He said the Court “has assisted in an assault on democracy”, not just in an erosion of it.
Asked if he was worried that since Bhushan’s tweet alleging the Supreme Court and the last four chief justices have played a particular role destroying democracy is considered contempt this could mean his charge that Supreme Court judges have assisted in an assault on democracy might also be considered contempt, Arun Shourie said he was not worried. He acknowledged the possibility that someone could view it as contempt but was unconcerned by that.
Arun Shourie named a series of former judges who have publicly criticised the functioning of the Supreme Court and yet their comments have not been considered contemptuous. He named Justices Lokur, Shah, Joseph and Lodha. The point he was making is simple: Prashant Bhushan has been picked upon by the court.
Shourie told The Wire that judges need “a sense of proportion”. He cited the 1969 judgement of Lord Denning, then Master of the Rolls in Britain, to show how judges should respond to even the harshest criticism. He said our Supreme Court judges “need more confidence in themselves”.
Speaking about Prashant Bhushan’s tweet regarding a photograph of Chief Justice S. A. Bobde sitting astride a Harley Davidson bike, Arun Shourie said: “Please don’t sit on mobikes costing 50 lakhs when you cannot afford it.” He seemed to suggest the Indian people could form an opinion of judges, the court and its propriety by such photographs.
He added: “When you hold a public office there is no difference between your private life and your public life”. As he put it, “You are a house on a hill”.
Speaking about the Supreme Court’s objection to Prashant Bhushan’s use of the word ‘lockdown’ in his tweet about Chief Justice Bobde, which the Court believes is “patently false” because it’s still functioning virtually, Arun Shourie told The Wire the Court has “completely misread the word”. He said there is a difference between lockdown and shut down.
Shourie said it was impossible to believe that Bhushan, by using the word lockdown, was suggesting the court was not working at all. As he put it: “They (the judges) cannot even imagine that anyone who has appeared before the court would be so forgetful that the court is functioning.”
In the interview, Shourie also said judges need to be clear about what is abuse. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi he said the wrong use of a word is abuse but if you describe a thief as a thief it’s not abuse. It’s a factual description.
Concluding his argument, Shourie said: “The judgement brings out not Prashant’s view of this central pillar but the view of the judges – that this central pillar is now so hollowed out, it’s so fragile that a mere puff of two tweets can put it in jeopardy.”
Referring to what he called “the epileptic orders of the court”, Shourie said the court has failed to make three critical distinctions in the Prashant Bhushan case.
First, it failed to distinguish between criticism and analysis.
Second, it’s shown an indefensible sense of prioritisation by choosing the Bhushan matter before constitutional issues such as the major changes in Kashmir or the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Third, the court has revealed its own insecurity rather than make out a case of contempt against Bhushan.
Arun Shourie said the Supreme Court has “shut its eyes to the manifest lies the government has told them”, particularly with regard to Saifuddin Soz’s detention.
He added that judges are “carried away by their hyperbolic grandiloquence from incomprehensibility to incoherence”.
The above is a paraphrased precis of Arun Shourie’s interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire. Please see the full interview for accurate details.