In Re: Prashant Bhushan and Anr. (Suo Motu Contempt Petition (Crl.) No.1 Of 2020)
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
In Re: Prashant Bhushan and Anr.
Suo Motu Contempt Petition (Crl.) No.1 Of 2020
Supreme Court of India (Inherent Jurisdiction)
Full Bench - Hon’ble Mr. Justice Arun Mishra, Hon’ble Mr. Justice Krishna Murari and Hon’ble Mr. Justice BR Gavai
ALSO KNOWN AS
Prashant Bhushan Contempt Case
POINT OF CONSIDERATION
Whether the Supreme Court can initiate suo motu contempt proceedings without the consent of The Attorney General of India or not? And Whether the impugned tweets by Adv. Prashant Bhushan amounts to contempt of court or not?
Supreme Court Advocate Mr. Prashant Bhushan authored two tweets under consideration on 27.06.2020 and 29.06.2020. The tweets were (1) “CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur without a mask or helmet……..” (attached an image of Hon’ble CJI Bobde sitting on a Harley Davidson superbike) and (2) “When historians in future look back at the last 6 years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the Supreme Court in this destruction, & more particularly the role of the last 4 CJIs.”
A petition came to be filed in the Supreme Court by Mr. Mahek Maheshwari bringing to the notice of the Court the tweets made by alleged contemnor No.1 praying therein to initiate contempt proceedings against the alleged contemnors (including Contemnor no.2 Twitter Inc.) for wilfully and deliberately using hate/scandalous speech against this Court and entire judicial system.
The Registry placed the said petition on the Administrative side of the Supreme Court seeking direction as to whether it should be listed for hearing or not as consent of the learned Attorney General for India had not been obtained by the said Mr. Maheshwari to file the said petition.
After examining the matter on the Administrative side, this court on the administrative side directed the matter to be listed on the Judicial side to pass appropriate orders.
ISSUES RAISED & RATIO
Whether the Supreme Court has the authority to entertain contempt petitions filed without the consent of Attorney general of India?
The court answered the issue in affirmative and reiterated that as far as the suo motu petitions are concerned there is no requirement for taking consent of anybody including the learned Attorney General because the Court is exercising its inherent powers under Article 129 of the Constitution of India to issue notice for contempt. The only requirement is that the procedure followed is required to be just and fair and in accordance with the principles of natural justice.
Whether the tweets of alleged contemnor no.1 (Adv Prashant Bhushan) amounted to contempt of court or not?
The main contention of the alleged contemnor No.1 was that the said statement (tweet no.1) was a bona fide criticism made by him on account of his anguish of non-functioning of the courts physically.
The court held that the statement that the CJI has kept the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental rights to access justice is patently false. Regarding tweet no.1, the court stated that the statement, that the Supreme Court is in lockdown was factually incorrect even to the knowledge of the alleged contemnor No.1. as the court was on summer vacation, albeit with vacation bench functioning regularly. The court further stated that after suspension of physical hearing, the Supreme Court started functioning through video conferencing. From 23.3.2020 till 4.8.2020, various benches of the Court sat regularly and discharged their duties through video conferencing. The total number of sittings that the various benches had from 23.3.2020 till 4.8.2020 was 879 and heard 12748 matters out of which 686 were writ petitions filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. Furthermore, the court interestingly noted that even in his personal capacity the alleged contemnor No.1 had taken recourse to the access of justice by approaching this Court in a petition under Article 32 of the Constitution via virtual hearing.
It was further contended (regarding tweet no.2) that the Chief Justice(s) were not the Supreme Court and that raising issues of concern regarding the way CJIs conduct themselves cannot and does not amount to “scandalising or lowering the authority of the court”.
The court rejected these submissions and held that the criticism is against the entire Supreme Court and the last four CJIs. The criticism is not against a particular judge but the institution of the Supreme Court and the institution of the Chief Justice of India
The Court explained that when proceedings in contempt are taken for vilification of a judge, the question that the Court will ask itself is, whether the vilification is of the judge as a Judge or it is the vilification of the judge as an individual. In the latter case, the judge is left to his private remedies and the Court will have no power to commit for contempt. However, in the former case, the Court will proceed to exercise the jurisdiction with scrupulous care and in cases which are clear and beyond reasonable doubt. However, if the attack on the Judge functioning as a Judge substantially affects administration of justice, it becomes a public mischief punishable for contempt and it does not matter whether such an attack is based on what a judge is alleged to have done in the exercise of his administrative responsibilities. The Court concluded that the present case falls under the former clause.
In result alleged contemnor No.1 i.e. Mr. Prashant Bhushan was held guilty of having committed criminal contempt of the Supreme Court. In a following sentencing judgment passed 2 weeks later on 31.08.2020, the court sentenced him to deposit to Re.1/- to the Registry failing which the contemnor was ordered to undergo a simple imprisonment of 3 months and further be debarred from practising in the Supreme Court for 3 years.
Whether the actions of alleged contemnor no.2 (Twitter Inc.) amounted to contempt of court or not?
Regarding the alleged contemnor No.2 the court accepted the explanation given by it that it is only an intermediary and that it does not have any control on what the users post on the platform and under section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 the alleged contemnor no.2 has been provided safe harbour as an intermediary for any objectional posts on its platform posted by its users. The court also noticed that it had also showed bona fides immediately after the cognizance was taken by the Court as it had suspended both the tweets. Therefore, alleged contemnor No.2. was discharged.
IMPORTANT CASES REFERRED
Re: Vijay Kurle & Ors 2020 SCC Online SC 407 (Suo Motu Contempt Petition (Criminal) No.2 of 2019
P.N. Duda vs. P. Shiv Shanker & Others (1988) 3 SCC 167
Brahma Prakash Sharma and Others vs. The State of Uttar Pradesh 1953 SCR 1169
Re: S. Mulgaokar (1978) 3 SCC 339
The author is a LL.B Graduate of University School of Law and Legal Studies, GGSIPU, New Delhi.