Lapsing into contempt: On punishing Prashant Bhushan

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The Supreme Court’s order finding advocate Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court reflects poorly on the institution’s tolerance of criticism. The judgment of a three-judge Bench on the suo motu contempt proceedings against Mr. Bhushan hardly adds to the dignity and majesty of the Court that it ostensibly sets out to uphold. It is unfortunate that two tweets, and not any set of scandalous or scurrilous allegations, have occasioned this heavy-handed treatment. In the 108-page opinion that largely draws upon past judgments delineating the circumstances in which the Court will act in aid of its institutional reputation and authority, there is little more than a perfunctory analysis leading to the finding that the tweets amount to criminal contempt. The first tweet, in which an image of Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde in an informal setting has been used to make a critical remark that he was denying citizens recourse to justice for fundamental rights violations, may be an exaggerated or even unwarranted view on the absence of physical hearings now. However, it is quite a stretch to say that it undermines the Court’s dignity, lowers its authority or interferes with the administration of justice. At best, it touches partially on the CJI’s personal conduct and partially on his administrative decision-making. Neither part brings with it any exceptional malice or scurrility warranting action for criminal contempt. It is precisely this sort of criticism that the judiciary ought to be able to shrug off.

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