New Delhi: Senior advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan on Thursday told the Supreme Court that he was “pained” that the bench had held him guilty of contempt. He reiterated that the two tweets in question were an expression of his beliefs, and that open criticism is required in a healthy democracy.
A bench of Justices Arun Mishra, B.R. Gavai and Krishna Murari had held Bhushan in contempt for two tweets – one about Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde riding a motorcycle without a mask during the pandemic and the other about the perceived deterioration in India’s democracy and the role of six former CJIs – on August 14. Thursday morning was the sentencing hearing for the case.
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for Bhushan, had said that the sentencing should be postponed until he has filed a review and it has been decided on. The bench disagreed, but Justice Mishra said no punishment would begin before the review process was complete. “We will be fair to you, whether or not you are fair to us,” the judge said.
At one point during the hearing, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal seemed to imply that Bhushan’s actions were no different than former judges of the Supreme Court, and perhaps should be punished (or not punished) accordingly. “Five judges of the Supreme Court who have said that democracy has failed in the Supreme Court – which is what Bhushan said in his tweets. Secondly, I have nine judges of the Supreme Court saying that there is corruption in the higher judiciary. Two of them made statements while they chaired [inaudible audio]…Seven of them said so immediately after their retirement. I have extracts from all of them. I myself made a speech in 1987 in the Indian law institute…” he was stopped from going further by Justice Mishra.
After Bhushan’s lawyers had argued in his defence, holding that his tweets should not be regarded as contempt at all, Justice Arun Mishra offered to give Bhushan a few days’ time so he could “rethink his statement”. The judge also said that Bhushan’s pro bono work was admirable and would work in his favour during sentencing.
Bhushan initially refused the offer for more time, saying, “I don’t want to reconsider the statement. As regards giving time, I don’t think it will serve any useful purpose.” He also said that his remarks were “well-considered”, and he was unlikely to change them in a few days.
The bench, however, decided that Bhushan would be given time to reconsider before the final verdict on sentencing. Meanwhile, they asked Dave to complete the legal arguments today.
The Supreme Court’s decision to hold Bhushan in contempt has been widely criticised by retired judges of the Supreme Court and high courts, lawyers, politicians, members of the civil society and others. It is being seen as an attempt to quash reasonable dissent.
Read Bhushan’s full statement to the court below.
I have gone through the judgment of this Hon’ble Court. I am pained that I have been held guilty of committing contempt of the Court whose majesty I have tried to uphold – not as a courtier or cheerleader but as a humble guard – for over three decades, at some personal and professional cost. I am pained, not because I may be punished, but because I have been grossly misunderstood.
I am shocked that the court holds me guilty of “malicious, scurrilous, calculated attack” on the institution of administration of justice. I am dismayed that the Court has arrived at this conclusion without providing any evidence of my motives to launch such an attack. I must confess that I am disappointed that the court did not find it necessary to serve me with a copy of the complaint on the basis of which the suo motu notice was issued, nor found it necessary to respond to the specific averments made by me in my reply affidavit or the many submissions of my counsel.
I find it hard to believe that the Court finds my tweet “has the effect of destabilising the very foundation of this important pillar of Indian democracy”. I can only reiterate that these two tweets represented my bonafide beliefs, the expression of which must be permissible in any democracy. Indeed, public scrutiny is desirable for healthy functioning of judiciary itself. I believe that open criticism of any institution is necessary in a democracy, to safeguard the constitutional order. We are living through that moment in our history when higher principles must trump routine obligations, when saving the constitutional order must come before personal and professional niceties, when considerations of the present must not come in the way of discharging our responsibility towards the future. Failing to speak up would have been a dereliction of duty, especially for an officer of the court like myself.
My tweets were nothing but a small attempt to discharge what I considered to be my highest duty at this juncture in the history of our republic. I did not tweet in a fit of absence mindedness. It would be insincere and contemptuous on my part to offer an apology for the tweets that expressed what was and continues to be my bonafide belief. Therefore, I can only humbly paraphrase what the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi had said in his trial: I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal to magnanimity. I am here, therefore, to cheerfully submit to any penalty that can lawfully be inflicted upon me for what the Court has determined to be an offence, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.