Prashant Bhushan Case: Contempt or Controversy?

On 31st August 2020, the Supreme Court of India held Prashant Bhushan guilty after taking suo motu cognisance under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Prashant Bhushan is a lawyer who specializes in PIL or Public Interest Litigation cases at the apex court of India.  Prashant Bhushan on 24th June 2020 had used twitter as a means to share his opinion on the Government, the Supreme Court and their functioning to the growth of India. He alleged the Government and the Supreme Court of encumbering growth alongside other tweets directed towards the Chief Justice of India as well as the corrupt nature of the Judiciary.

Contempt of court, is the offense of being disobedient or disrespectful towards a court of law and/or its officers in the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court.

He was held guilty for the charges of contempt under by the bench of Justices Arun Mishra, B.R. Gavai and Krishna Murari. They held in their judgement that the tweets were a malicious attack on the entire Supreme Court and that these allegations were based on distorted facts.

Looking at the case, it is clear that the Supreme Court wanted to clear its name, but what gives us reason to doubt the whole procedure as well as intention of the Supreme Court is the urgency with which the case was moved forward. While there were more pressing matters in relation to the country’s national and domestic affairs such as the challenges to CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), writs of Habeas Corpus as well as questions of fundamental rights to the people of Kashmir, the Supreme Court took paramount importance in hearing the contempt of court case first rather than the issues that affected communities altogether.

There were also procedural inconsistencies when it comes to the trial itself. He had submitted a 134 page affidavit which explained his true intentions around the tweets and allegations. In response, Prashant Bhushan filed a writ petition requesting the SC to recall the contempt notice issued against him. He argued that the original petition which led to the SC taking suo moto cognizance was not valid because it had not been sanctioned by the Attorney General as required by Section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act (1971) and Rule 3 of the Rules to Regulate Proceedings for Contempt of the Supreme Court (1975).

Prashant Bhushan was not allowed to display the implications his tweet might have caused in order to be contempt of court in the first place. Secondly, he was not allowed to use truth as a defense. The truth is always a considered a natural defense to any allegation. However, the Supreme Court held that it could not call the judges who were accused of the allegations to testify.

The court in summary, somehow believes itself to hold the ability to ascertain any statement as true or false without any factual evidence either promoting or denying it. This in my opinion would turn out to encumber the very values of free speech enshrined under part III of the Constitution that gives every person the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1). Although Article 19(2) also defines reasonable restrictions to said freedom, it is of paramount importance to first ascertain the proper facts in each scenario rather than branding the truth without any sufficient investigation. Hence, this case and its sentencing of fine of Rupee 1 or 3 months in jail will in the long run turn out to be a dark stain on the Judiciary as well as free speech in India.

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