Supreme Court imposes Re 1 fine on Prashant Bhushan for contempt
The Supreme Court on Monday imposed a Re 1 fine on activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan days after holding him guilty of criminal contempt of court for two tweets against the apex court and Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde. It said if he fails to pay the fine by September 15, Bhushan will have to undergo three-month simple imprisonment and be barred from practising for three years.
Bhushan said he gratefully accepted the judgement and his lawyer, Rajiv Dhavan, immediately paid the fine. “My lawyer & senior colleague Rajiv Dhavan contributed 1 Re immediately after the contempt judgement today which I gratefully accepted,” he tweeted
According to the Contempt of Courts Act, the offence of criminal contempt carries a punishment of up to six months in prison or a fine up to Rs 2,000 or both. The court has also barred lawyers found guilty of contempt from practising before it for a limited period while refraining from imposing any jail sentence.
The verdict was reserved on Tuesday last after the court gave Bhushan a fresh opportunity to apologise, withdraw his comments, or express regret.
Dhawan and Attorney General of India KK Venugopal, the Centre’s top law officer who appeared in his personal capacity, last week urged the court to not punish the activist-lawyer and let him off with a reprimand. Dhavan said the effect of punishment will make Bhushan a martyr and urged the court not to do so.
The court considered these requests and wanted Bhushan to apologise before taking a lenient view. The bench, headed by Justice Arun Mishra, suggested that Bhushan must “express regret” for his tweets, and subsequent statements defending them.
At one point last week, the court gave Bhushan time to think over his responses and consider retracting his statements. But no apology or retraction was offered as Bhushan maintained that it would be ingenuous and a “contempt of his conscience”. He argued that his criticism came with the best interests of the court in mind.
The bench said the court welcomes fair criticism, but critics should not attribute motives to judges.
Justice Mishra, who will retire on Wednesday, last week said lawyers and judges are part of the same institution and should work together to ensure that the dignity of the institution is not compromised.
Several eminent jurists have said that the court was being overly harsh in initiating criminal contempt proceedings against Bhushan.
The bench last week said Bhushan has declined to apologise and has also filed statements sticking to his stance.
Bhushan had posted two tweets, one against the Supreme Court on June 27 and another against CJI Bobde on June 29.
Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association secretary Rohit Sud called the apex court’s order harsh while underlining the need for the Bar and bench try to maintain cordial relations.
DPS Randhawa, the association’s president, said there should not be a hitch in dialogue between the two. “The court should have referred the matter to the Bar Council [of India] so that relations between the two remain cordial.”
Mandeep Bedi, the president of the Senior Advocates’ Association of Punjab and Haryana High Court, said Bhushan should not have been fined. “A fine, whether of Re 1 or Rs 10,000, is a fine. He should have been let off with a warning because it was just a tweet.”
Former Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana chairman Lekh Raj Sharma called the decision a balanced one. “The rule of law should prevail and I think it has been upheld in this case to save the institution. In the name of fair criticism and freedom of expression, no one should be allowed to scandalise the courts,” he said.
Mehek Maheshwari, an advocate, filed a petition before the Supreme Court on July 9 seeking contempt of court proceedings against Bhushan for the tweets. Based on his petition, the court took suo motu (on its own) cognisance of the matter and listed it for the first time on July 22 and issued notice to Bhushan the same day.
The court then heard the matter on August 5 and held Bhushan guilty of contempt of court on August 14. It then posted the case for hearing on August 20 to decide the sentence.
When the matter was heard on August 20, Bhushan read out a statement expressing dismay over his conviction. He said that he was standing by his tweets, which he described as an attempt to discharge his duty towards the country.
The three-judge bench said it could show leniency only if Bhushan expressed regret and reconsidered his statement declining to apologise. It gave Bhushan time to submit an unconditional apology by August 24 failing which it would proceed against him.
Bhushan submitted a supplementary statement before the court on August 24 persisting with his stance and refusing to offer an apology. He submitted his views represented his bona fide (good faith) beliefs and, therefore, offering an apology for expressing them would be insincere.
His tweets were not intended to malign the apex court or the CJI but only offered constructive criticism “so that the court could arrest any drift away from its longstanding role as a guardian of the Constitution”, Bhushan said.
Dhavan suggested on Tuesday last that the court should close the case after issuing a general direction that the Bar should exercise restraint while criticising the court. He also pointed out instances when lawyers and judges have criticised the court and its judgments.
One of Bhushan’s main arguments was that criticising courts is protected by free speech and will not amount to contempt.