When Socrates was on trial for his life, he said, during his defence – as narrated by Plato in his Trial and Death of Socrates – “I am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life…” His role, he said, is “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.”
The case of Prashant Bhushan v the Justices, if one may describe it thus, is verily one of a Gadfly v The Holy Cow.
It’s no longer a strictly legal fight between a celebrated and tenacious lawyer fighting public interest causes, one who is known for his indefatigable energy and persistence over the years. And not just during the last six years – he was a bugbear and tormentor to all earlier governments. It is a fight with the Supreme Court, an institution which seems increasingly to many as perceiving itself beyond reproach.
This is not only a matter of constitutional interpretation of various laws enshrining freedom of speech and its limitations but a question of the freedom to question and criticise any one and everyone in authority, who holds a public office. The case has now become a much larger public issue, one that concerns and affects every citizen, including serving justices, because the sitting judge of today is an ordinary citizen tomorrow. She or he, divested of their ‘robes’, will bear the same yoke like the rest of us and may have to join everyone to do what it takes to embrace freedom, our most precious gift.
The case is now a cause célèbre, with scores of highly regarded retired judges, eminent jurists, respected former civil servants, activists, famous intellectuals and writers – more than three thousand of them – taking up the cause of Bhushan and the right to question and challenge authority. Many are writing articles, speaking in public forums and on television and signing petitions. There is a plan to hold a nationwide video conference on August 20, the day Bhushan’s sentencing is expected. Clearly, the case is now no longer a narrow contempt case against a lawyer who dared to question the courts. It has taken on the colours and characters of Citizens vs Supreme Court, not in the precincts of the virtual or real four walls of the court but in the more powerful larger public court whose judgment overrides all other judgments.
At the heart of Prashant Bhushan’s tweets, and statements and speeches, lies a fundamental question – can those in authority and power, when they wear the mantle of hubris instead of the constitution, be questioned, or are they themselves beyond the pale of law? That those who make the law or interpret the law and sit in judgment are themselves bound by the law is self evident but seems to have been forgotten. As former US president Theodore Roosevelt said, “No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man’s permission when we require him to obey it. ”
From Greek mythology to Indian mythology, and even throughout history, those afflicted with hubris – the attitude that the king can do no wrong – have never gone unpunished. Indian epics are replete with stories of kings, demons and sages who acquired immense power through long arduous penance being destroyed by the gods who, feeling threatened, conspired to lure them through decoys and apsaras when they transgressed.
Prashant Bhushan gave hundreds of pages defending himself. Many luminaries, from practicing lawyers to retired judges, have pointed out that his defence has not been studied and argued nor considered but simply ignored.
It is well to remember what Socrates said before his conviction –
” .. O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me. .. I believe that to hear me will be good for you, and therefore I beg that you will not cry out. I would have you know, that if you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me.”
Convicting Prashant Bhushan in haste, without hearing him and his lawyers in open court in public hearing so the people – who have a right to bear witness, as these proceedings affect and impinge on all – can see, will do more harm to the judiciary and judges themselves than to Prashant Bhushan. He, rest assured, will continue to sting the ‘Holy Cow’.
Captain G.R. Gopinath is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Air Deccan.