Bhushan case: SC sets a wrong precedent
The sentence does not, in any way, mitigate the original order, through which the court has restricted the space for criticism. A victory for those who believe in free speech would have been a review of the order itself.
After holding advocate-activist Prashant Bhushan in contempt, the Supreme Court (SC), on Monday, imposed a ₹1 fine on Mr Bhushan as punishment — the failure to deposit the token fine would have resulted in Mr Bhushan being imprisoned for three months, and being debarred from practising law in the SC for three years. Mr Bhushan has accepted the verdict and will pay the fine. To many who believed that the SC made a mistake in interpreting criticism as contempt, the mild nature of the sentence is an acknowledgement by the court that what it saw as an offence did not merit strict punishment.
But the text of the order sentencing Mr Bhushan throws up a more disturbing picture. The SC bench, led by Justice Arun Mishra, has unequivocally said that Mr Bhushan made “reckless allegations”, capable of “shaking the very edifice of the judicial administration”. It has limited the boundaries of free speech, saying that criticism of the judiciary must be “measured, strictly rational, sober and proceed from the highest motives without being coloured by partisan spirit or pressure tactics or intimidatory attitude”. These are all subjective terms which can be interpreted in ways to quell criticism.
The sentence does not, in any way, mitigate the original order, through which the court has restricted the space for criticism. A victory for those who believe in free speech would have been a review of the order itself. The judiciary must be open to feedback from citizens, even as citizens accept its supremacy. The Bhushan case represented an opportunity to set right the contempt jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the court had ended up setting a wrong precedent.