The Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of tweets by Civil Activist Lawyer Prashant Bhushan and held guilty for criminal contempt by exercising its power under Article 129 of the Constitution in the matter of In Re: Prashant Bhushan & Anr. dated Aug 14, 2020. A three-judge bench headed by Justices Arun Mishra, and comprising B.R. Gavai and Krishna Murari fixed the sentence hearing on August 20, 2020. The Contempt of Court Act of 1971 punishes with imprisonment that may extend to six months and fine of Rs. 2,000 or both.
No requirement for taking consent of Attorney General to issue notice for contempt
Section 15 of Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 requires three ways of initiating criminal contempt – (i) suo motu (ii) on the motion by the Advocate General/Attorney General and/Solicitor General (iii) on the basis of a petition filed by any other person with the consent in writing of the Advocate General/Attorney General and/Solicitor General. Upon this question whether written consent of Attorney General is required to initiate the contempt proceedings, the supreme court held that it has the constitutional power to initiate the proceedings under Article 129 and Section 15 of the Act cannot limit it.
The Tweets attempted to destabilise Indian Democracy
In its 108 page judgment, the Supreme Court said, “The tweets had the effect of attempting to destabilise Indian democracy. Such malice should be dealt with an iron hand in the larger public interest. The magnanimity of courts should not extend to weakness.
The “Scurrilous tweets” was a “Scheme” to damage public confidence in Judiciary
The Bench, headed by Justice Arun Mishra, said when a “scheme” was on to damage public confidence in the judiciary, those interested in fearless justice should stand firmly. The court could not ignore the disrespect and disaffection created by the “scurrilous” tweets.
Does punishing a lawyer an ‘Extreme Measure’?
The judgment said though punishing a lawyer is an ‘extreme measure’ but nevertheless necessary to keep the “streams of justice pure, serene and undefiled.” It further said, “If such an attack is not dealt with the requisite degree of firmness, it may affect national honour and prestige in the comity of nations,” as pointed out by Justice B.R. Gavai.
Criticisim is not contempt?
Justice Gavai differed on this, saying, “Critics are instruments of reform, but not those actuated by malice but those who are inspired by public weal… Hostile criticism of judges or judiciary would amount to scandalising the court.”