Supreme Court reserves verdict on quantum of sentence of Prashant Bhushan [25.8.2020]

New Delhi, 25.8.2020

The Supreme Court on Tuesday reserved its verdict on sentencing of lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan in a suo motu contempt case, after giving him 30 minutes to "think over" his stand not to express regrets for his two contemptuous tweets about the judiciary. However, no apology was forthcoming.

The court adjourned for half an hour to ascertain the defiant lawyer's response, after observing that he should "withdraw all statements and express regret."

The time given spilled over to an hour before the Bench re-assembled and deferred the pronouncement of the sentence to another day, without fixing a date for punishment.

Justice Mishra told Bhushan that the court could have ignored the matter if someone else had committed the contempt; "but because people believe him (Bhushan)," that was the reason why he can't go scot-free. This was not expected of Bhushan who is a part of the system; he can't destroy it, the judge stressed and added how painful it is to deal with the case; even more painful was to read his defence.

"A person should realise his mistake. We gave Bhushan three days, but he says he will not apologise," said Justice Mishra while presiding over a sitting on Tuesday to decide the quantum of punishment after Bhushan refused on Monday to apologise.

"We tolerate fair criticism and welcome it. But we cannot go to press to defend ourselves. I have never gone to press. We are bound by an oath. We speak only through our orders," the judge said.

Justice Mishra also said that lawyers and judges are part of the same institution and should work together to ensure that dignity of the institution is not compromised. “You (lawyers) are part of the system. We are not separate from the Bar. We (judges) have also come from the Bar,” he said.

Bhushan remained firm in not apologising; he did not do so in the three days granted to him last Thursday, nor in the 30 minutes given on Tuesday, which got extended to an hour. His counsel Rajeev Dhavan protested that the court can't force an apology in contempt proceedings in this manner. It is setting a wrong jurisprudence instead of taking criticism in its stride, he said, stressing that the SC can survive only if it shoulders strong criticism.

Last Thursday, the Bench had granted time to Bhushan up to Monday to reconsider his "defiant statement" on refusing to apologise and tender an "unconditional’’ regret. Dhavan dubbed the order as "nothing but coercion on the part of the SC" and said "apology could not be the crutches to get out of contempt of court proceedings."

Dhavan went on to urge the court not to make Prashant a martyr by punishing him for contempt and asserted that his voice cannot be silenced forever.

"If the apex court punishes him, the controversy will snowball into a bigger one -- one group will make Bhushan a martyr and the other will say he has been rightly punished," he submitted and exhorted Justice Mishra to show statesmanship and recall the conviction and end the controversy.

The two other judges on the Bench were Justices Bhushan Ramkrishna Gavai and Krishna Murari, but it were Justice Mishra who conducted most of the proceedings. The Bench could have immediately proceeded to sentence Prashant, as there is no scope for arguments after reserving the judgment last Thursday, but it opted to hear further in a bid to see if it can still end an unsavoury episode.

Attorney General K K Venugopal intervened to urge the court to take a compassionate view and let Prashant go with a warning. Justice Mishra, however, angrily responded that even in his affidavit and the supplementary statement on Monday, the contemnor has made disparaging and derogatory remarks against the judiciary after refusing to apologise.

"Prashant Bhushan says SC has collapsed. Is it not objectionable," Justice Mishra asked the attorney general.

In his supplementary statement on Monday, Prashant had insisted that what he had represented in his two tweets faulted by the court was his bona fide belief which he continues to hold. An apology would, therefore, be "insincere;" also, it would amount to "contempt of my conscience and contempt of an institution that I hold in the highest esteem."

26 Aug 2020