upreme Court advocate and PIL activist Prashant Bhushan is no ordinary man. Bhushan has been in the forefront of fighting many a legal battle based on public interest and earned a name over the past decade. Some years ago, he and his father Shanti Bhushan had demonstrated extreme courage by compiling and publicizing a list comprising names of Chief Justices of India (CJIs) who were corrupt. Interestingly, the persons named did not show equal courage in challenging the allegation by the Bhushans. This kind of bravado seems to run in the blood of that family. Currently, Prashant Bhushan is facing contempt of court and the Supreme Court has initiated a suo moto case against him – that too, in times of the present partial paralysis of court functioning.
India’s judiciary always wants to keep itself beyond criticism. Contempt of Court is its most lethal weapon. However, in recent times, there have been critical comments in the media over the way those in the judiciary got themselves involved in acts of corruption -like the infamous ‘crores for bail’ scam linked to a high court — and allegations of sexual misconduct against the likes of Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice AK Ganguly. The apex court did not object to critical comments against the judges in these contexts and preferred to keep quiet. Earlier when many allegations were brought against SC judges, no action was considered necessary by the judiciary. Especially the allegation of a woman who worked in the CJI office during Gogoi’s tenure and was against the CJI himself, was conveniently hushed up forever. However, impression was being given that the highest judiciary had commenced turning the corner towards a more liberal and open attitude. For those who thought so, the present apex court move against Prashant Bhushan has come as a jolt.
A contempt case had been filed against Bhushan in 2009 over a critical comment against former Chief Justices. He is also known for his spats with judges, some of which were reported in the media. For example, Bhushan had demanded that Justice Arun Mishra should not be a part of the Bench which was hearing the matter of the Director of CBI a few years ago. Interestingly, it is Justice Mishra who has now brought forth the suo moto cognizance of Contempt against Bhushan for a tweet that mentions the role of the court in the last six years and about a photograph of CJI SA Bobde on a motorcycle. The suo moto charge observed that the tweets undermined the dignity of the Supreme Court and the CJI’s office. Bhushan had also mentioned about the role of the Supreme Court in the destruction of democracy and the role of the last four Chief Justices of India, which, he said, needed to be examined.
Fittingly, over 130 eminent personalities including a former Supreme Court judge and a former Delhi high court chief justice – Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice AP Shah – down to activists Arundhati Roy and Yogendra Yadav have come up with a public statement, taking exception to Bhushan being proceeded against. They hailed Bhushan as one who spent his career in “pro bono legal service” to those who do not have ready access to legal services. They stated that, in the past few years, “serious questions have been raised about the reluctance of the Supreme Court to play its constitutionally mandated role as a check on governmental excesses and violations of fundamental rights of people by the state, and questions have been raised by sitting and retired judges of the Supreme Court themselves.” They have also referred to the apex court’s reluctance to intervene in the lockdown-linked crisis faced by millions of migrants. The court had kept itself totally aloof from such a large humanitarian issue and woke up much later, when nearly everything had sorted itself out.
However, the other side of the picture seems unclear. By this suo moto prosecution of Bhushan, the apex court may have opened doors to many a dark recesses. This kind of a prosecution will eventually help Bhushan garner public support and empathy while the Court may paint itself as an institution that is prepared to bulldoze individuals who dare to question acts that drag in issues of honesty and propriety of the judges themselves. The Supreme Court of India is a permanent institution. A human being, whether a lawyer or a judge, is temporary. No amount of filth thrown on a clean edifice can ever stain it. If the Justices are confident of their own integrity and righteous characters, then people like Bhushan should not be able to ruffle their feathers. This reaction could make citizens think they are ruffled.