In Re: Prashant Bhushan & Anr. …. Alleged Contemnor(S)
SUO MOTU CONTEMPT PETITION (CRL.) NO.1 OF 2020
Bench: Arun Mishra, B.R. Gavai and Krishna Murari, JJ.
Mr. Prashant Bhushan, the alleged contemnor No.1 send a tweet on twitter regarding CJI which states as:- “CJI rides a 50 Lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan Nagpur, without a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC in Lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice!”.
The alleged Contemnor, Shri Prashant Bhushan on June 27, 2020, tweeted, “When historians in future look back at the last 6 years to see how 3 democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the Supreme Court in this destruction, & more particularly the role of the last 4 CJIs.”
The Supreme Court took cognizance of these tweets on the ground that it has brought the administration of justice in disrepute and are capable of undermining the dignity and authority of the Institution of Supreme Court in general and the office of the Chief Justice of India in particular, in the eyes of public at large.
Question of Law
Whether the alleged tweet could be considered as alleged criminal contempt within the eye of law?
The main contention of the alleged contemnor No.1 is, that insofar as the first tweet is concerned, it was made primarily to underline his anguish at the non-physical functioning of the Supreme Court for the last more than three months, as a result of which fundamental rights of citizens, such as those in detention, those destitute and poor, and others facing serious and urgent grievances were not being addressed or taken up for redressal. It is contended, that it was made to highlight the incongruity of the situation where the CJI on one hand keeps the court virtually in lockdown due to COVID fears, with hardly any cases being heard and those heard, also by an unsatisfactory process through video conferencing and on the other hand is seen in a public place with several people around him without a mask. It is his submission, that expressing his anguish by highlighting the said incongruity and the attendant facts, the first tweet cannot be said to constitute contempt of court. It is submitted, that if it is regarded as a contempt, it would stifle free speech and would constitute an unreasonable restriction on the right of a citizen under Article l9(1)(a) of the Constitution.
Insofar as the second tweet dated 27.6.2020 is concerned, it is his submission, that the said tweet has three distinct elements, each of which is his bona fide opinion about the state of affairs in the country in the past six years and the role of the Supreme Court and in particular the role of the last 4 CJIs. It is submitted, that the first part of the tweet contains his considered opinion, that democracy has been substantially destroyed in India during the last six years. The second part is his opinion, that the Supreme Court has played a substantial role in allowing the destruction of the democracy and the third part is his opinion regarding the role of the last 4 Chief Justices in particular in allowing it. It is his submission, that such an expression of opinion, however outspoken, disagreeable or 6 however unpalatable to some, cannot constitute contempt of court. It is his contention, that it is the essence of a democracy that all institutions, including the judiciary, function for the citizens and the people of this country and they have every right to freely and fairly discuss the state of affairs of an institution and build public opinion in order to reform the institution.
The Supreme Court held Mr. Prashant Bhushan guilty of having committed criminal contempt of this Court.
The Court said that the first part of the first tweet states, that ‘CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur without a mask or helmet’. This part of the tweet could be said to be a criticism made against the CJI as an individual and not against the CJI as CJI. However, with regard to the second part of the tweet which states, ‘at a time when he keeps the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental rights to access justice’. The Court said that undisputedly, the said part of the statement criticizes the CJI in his capacity as the Chief Justice of India i.e. the Administrative Head of the judiciary of the country.
The Court citing the impression that the said part of the tweet attempts to give to a layman is, that the CJI is riding a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur without a mask or helmet, at a time when he has kept the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice.
The said tweet is capable of giving an impression to a layman, that the CJI is enjoying his ride on a motorbike worth Rs.50 lakh belonging to a BJP leader, at a time when he has kept the Supreme Court in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice.
The Court clarifying its stand said that firstly that the date on which the CJI is alleged to have taken a ride on a motorbike is during the period when the Supreme Court was on a summer vacation. In any case, even during the said period, the vacation Benches of the Court were regularly functioning.
The Court, with regard to the second tweet, said that the impression which the said tweet tends to give to an ordinary citizen is, that when the historians in future look back, the impression they will get is, that in the last six years the democracy has been destroyed in India without even a formal emergency and that the Supreme Court had a particular role in the said destruction and the last four Chief Justices of India had more particular role in the said destruction. There cannot be any manner of doubt, that the said tweet is directed against the Supreme Court, tending to give an impression, that the Supreme Court has a particular role in the destruction of democracy in the last six years and the last four CJIs had a more particular role in the same. It is clear, that the criticism is against the entire Supreme Court and the last four CJIs. The criticism is not against a particular judge but the institution of the Supreme Court and the institution of the Chief Justice of India.
The Supreme Court said that such an attack tends to create disaffection and disrespect for the authority of this Court and hence, held Mr. Prashant Bhushan guilty of having committed criminal contempt.