Prashant Bhushan’s Contempt of Court Case

Authorized by Nivea KG law student from Government Law College Ernakulam, Kerala.

For questioning the veracity of judiciary, by posting condemning tweets regarding the conduct of Chief Justices including present and the previous ones, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu contempt proceedings against the senior lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan. The raised questions are on the true intent of contempt of court proceedings and lead to the independent nature of the judiciary. The apex court took a Suo Moto cognizance and initiated contempt proceedings not only against the lawyer but also against Twitter India. The matter was listed to be heard by the bench of Justice. Arun Mishra, Justice. B. R. Gavai, Justice. Krishna Murari.

Contempt of court arose in a circumstance that undermines the freedom of speech of a person to safeguard the court from any scandalization and defamation and so on enabling it to hold out its functions during a fair and fearless manner. It can also be recognized as a limitation on the liberty of speech under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Moreover, the Contempt of Courts Act, 1976 has given statutory recognition to the present concept. Contempt of court is of 2 types; civil and criminal. When civil contempt of court is reasonable within the sense that it ensures that the orders of the court are complied with, criminal contempt of court is where the judiciary has been vested with vast powers that are often misused for giddy purposes.
The 3 elements to contempt of court –

1.Words, whether written or spoken, signs and actions that “scandalize” or “tend to scandalize” or “lower” or “tend to lower” the authority of the court,

2.Prejudices or interferes with any litigation and

3.Interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice.
The primary element of contempt of court is open-ended and is left to the last word discretion of the court. The special nature of contempt proceedings is that it’s not the state against the individual, but the very court against the person. Here, the judges themselves are the petitioners, judges, and executioners, and begins with the presumption of guilt of the accused. From the very point of view, it hints that this discretionary power vested with the court is bigoted and leads to an unfair trial of the accused, who is at the beck and call of the court. It mocks the principles of natural justice under the excuse of protecting and demanding respect for the court of law.

On July 22nd, 2020 the very same provisions were used against Prashant Bhushan for 2 of his tweets – one in which he claimed that the Supreme Court played a serious role within the “destruction of democracy”; and in the other tweet, he commented on an image of the Chief justice of India astride a Harley-Davidson bike without a helmet and face-mask “while the Supreme Court is in the lockdown mode”. These tweets within the opinion of the Supreme Court tend to “lower the authority of the Court”. Prashant Bhushan, in his extensive reply to the suo motu proceedings on August 5th, had contended that his tweets constitute freedom of speech and each sort of criticism “however outspoken, disagreeable or however unpalatable, cannot constitute contempt of court”. He also remarked that “it is that the essence of a democracy that each one of the institutions, including the judiciary, function for the citizens and therefore for the people of the country and that they have every right to freely and fairly discuss the state of affairs of an establishment and build public opinion to reform the institution.”

This case highlights a disturbing trend wherein judges are making liberal use of their suo motu powers to punish people who hurt their egos under the garb of upholding the authority and respect of the court. Contempt proceedings harm the institution and, if frivolously employed by courts to reconcile their hurt egos, even if it is warranted, ultimately nullify any kind of criticism against the court.

The life and blood of democracy is constructive criticism. However, the judges have failed to be broad-minded in initiating contempt proceedings and have made use of their wide discretion to require action against comments that have hurt their sentiments which can not necessarily affect the general public opinion of the court altogether. The courts must become broad-shouldered and adopt a liberal approach to criticisms to avoid the danger of becoming like an authoritarian regime, where it is above all particular criticism. Only time is going to be the judge to work out the implications of this case on the longer term of Indian democracy at a time when allegations of authoritarianism are growing in popularity.

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