The Supreme Court on Monday imposed a token fine of Re 1 on advocate Prashant Bhushan, whom it had last week held guilty of criminal contempt over two tweets.
The Bench led by Justice Arun Mishra, and also comprising Justices B R Gavai and Krishna Murari, said it could have imposed a harsher punishment, but it was “showing magnanimity”.
The Bench, which had held Bhushan guilty on August 14, asked him to deposit the fine with the Supreme Court registry by September 15, “failing which he shall undergo a simple imprisonment for a period of three months and… be debarred from practising in this Court for a period of three years.
“In our considered view, the act committed by the contemnor is a very serious one. He has attempted to denigrate the reputation of the institution of administration of justice of which he himself is a part.”
Hours after he was sentenced, Bhushan told a press conference that he would pay the fine, but he reserved his right to seek a review of the judgment holding him guilty of contempt.
“I propose to submit myself to this order and will respectfully pay the fine as I would have submitted to any other lawful punishment,” he said.
“What is very heartening is that this case has become a watershed moment for freedom of speech and seems to have encouraged many people to stand up and speak out against the injustices in our society,” Bhushan said.
The judgment said that although Bhushan was given chances to “express regret”, he did not do so, and ignored the advice of Attorney General K K Venugopal to express regret and withdraw the allegation in his reply affidavit.
Bhushan’s conduct, the court said, “reflects adamance and ego, which has no place to exist in the system of administration of justice and in noble profession, and no remorse is shown for the harm done to the institution to which he belongs.
“At the same time, we cannot retaliate merely because the contemnor has made a statement that he is neither invoking the magnanimity or the mercy of this Court and he is ready to submit to the penalty that can be lawfully be inflicted upon him for what the Court has determined to be an offence.”
If the court did not “take cognizance of such conduct it will give a wrong message to the lawyers and litigants throughout the country”, the judgment said.
“However, by showing magnanimity, instead of imposing any severe puishment, we are sentencing the contemnor with a nominal fine of Re.1/- (Rupee one),” the Bench ruled.
The court rejected the attempt by Bhushan “to justify” himself “on the basis of the Press Conference dated 12.01.2018 of the four senior-most Judges of this Court”. It said that “it is settled that negative equality cannot be claimed as there is no concept of negative equality”.
The judgment also disapproved of the unprecedented press conference itself, addressed by then Justices J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur and Kurian Joseph, at which they had said there was an urgent need to preserve the judiciary if India’s democracy was to be protected, and that they had chosen to go public after having failed to convince then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra of the same.
“We hope it was the first and the last occasion that the Judges have gone to press, and God gives wisdom to protect its dignity by internal mechanism, particularly, when allegations made, if any, publicly cannot be met by sufferer Judges,” Monday’s judgment said. “It would cause suffering to them till eternity. Truth can be the defence to the Judges also, but they are bound by their judicial norms, ethics, and code of conduct.”
The court said “it is not expected of a person” like Bhushan “who is a part of the system of administration of justice and who owes a duty to the said system, to make such tweets which are capable of shaking the confidence of general public and further making wild allegations in the affidavit thereby further attempting to malign the said institution. Such an act by responsible person who is part of this system cannot be ignored… We find no justification to make such a remark/tweet…”
Bhushan told reporters that what “the court has determined to be an offence” was, in his understanding “the highest duty of a citizen”.
He said: “My tweets were not intended in any way to disrespect the Supreme Court or the judiciary as a whole, but were merely meant to express my anguish, at what I felt, was a deviation from its sterling past record.
“This issue was never me versus the Hon’ble judges, much less about me versus the Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court of India wins, every Indian wins. Every Indian wants a strong and independent judiciary. Obviously, if the courts get weakened, it weakens the republic and harms every citizen,” he said.