Protesting the Supreme Court decision to initiate suo motu contempt proceedings against activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan, a group of prominent citizens, including former Supreme Court and High Court judges, urged the court to drop the proceedings. “An institution as important as the Supreme Court must be open to public discussion without fear of retribution or action of criminal contempt,” pontificated Their Eminences in a statement on Monday. Apparently, the signatories were less concerned about protecting the dignity and honour of the highest court than they were about shielding a habitual offender. A partisan concern animated them. Otherwise, they would not be so disingenuous as to condone Bhushan’s repeated attempts to drag the higher judiciary into the gutter in the name of ridding it of the real or imaginary malpractices and shortcomings. To claim that “at least half-a-dozen chief justices of India were corrupt”, yes, corrupt, is in no way aimed at enhancing the prestige of the higher judiciary. It is a clear and open attempt at ‘scandalising the court.’ That a lawyer of his standing should periodically plunge headlong into muck to traduce the sitting and former judges of the apex court and expect to get away scot-free each time even without a rap on his knuckles reflects an unpardonable laxity on the part of the courts. Whether it is fear of intimidation or something else, or, even a misplaced spirit of generosity and large-heartedness, refraining from hauling up the errant senior lawyer for repeatedly lowering the standing of the institution before the people only seems to embolden him further. Indeed, wonder if former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, who fashions himself as a defender of the lost causes ever since he nullified Article 377 with his gaze fixed on the public gallery, would have let go if some lawyer were to accuse him of being corrupt while he was still serving. If he had, that would have revealed an unacceptable unconcern for the institution he headed at the time. For, the institution suffers a loss of reputation when the integrity of its head is questioned.
Not long ago, a newly-launched periodical faced closure when it reported a ‘survey of advocates of the Delhi High Court grading various judges on a scale of one to ten about their financial integrity’. The court lost no time in hauling up the magazine for contempt, imposing heavy costs resulting in its premature closure. The point is that Bhushan has got away abusing the judges for far too long and needs to be disciplined. Freedom of speech cannot be allowed to degenerate into license, to drag the pillars of the higher judiciary into the gutter. Which is what the metaphorical public flogging of dignitaries without their having a chance to defend themselves Bhushan seems to thrive on. Consider the trigger for the revival of the contempt charge, since the apex court had put the earlier case about ‘six former CJIs were corrupt’ on the backburner.
Recently when a newspaper published a photograph of Chief Justice S A Bobde astride a Harley Davidson motorcycle, Bhushan tartly tweeted that ‘he rides a bike without a helmet and a face mask while he keeps the SC in lockdown mode.’ That the CJI Bobde, being an old enthusiast of motorbikes, merely sat on the bike out of curiosity, was of no concern to the professional PIL- filer. What mattered most was for him to embellish his image as a courageous lawyer always ready to challenge the high and mighty of the land. If by so doing, it enhances his ‘marketability’, so be it. Of course, the myriad ways the PIL enterprise has come to be abused for private and corporate ends need not detain us here. Bhushan also tweeted about the role of the Supreme Court in what he called the ‘destruction’ of democracy, alluding to the delay in the court scheduling hearing of a few politically sensitive cases. Reasons of State, including security and law and order, do call for tempering of the judicial zeal sometime. And it is not unexpected in any democratic country for the heads of constitutional institutions to grant one another a modicum of understanding and even leeway, given that each country faces its own internal and external threats. But Bhushan, the judicial gadfly who has made quite a career for himself being a champion of causes, must ascribe base motives even while being aware of the sensitivities of some of the cases he cites for not being listed for his high-minded edification. It is all very well to argue that the power of contempt has been shed by courts elsewhere.
To cite that in England the judges were not so thin-skinned as to launch contempt proceedings upon being called ‘old fools’, or even ‘enemies of the people’ is not the same thing as being dubbed financially corrupt. The usual suspects who issue statements against the present regime at the drop of a hat ought to be mindful that some people do cherish their integrity and would not have those seemingly in the service of humanity hurling filthy abuse against them. In our dictionary, to call someone corrupt is far worse than being called a fool, the latter surely is a matter of individual perception while the former is a serious charge, inviting criminal defamation and worse.