Activist and advocate Prashant Bhushan was on Monday let off with a token fine of Re 1 for his two tweets critical of judiciary, but the fine came with strings attached.
If he did not pay the fine by September 15, it would entail three months of jail and he would also be debarred for three years from practising as a lawyer, the apex court ruled.
The Bench of Justices Arun Mishra, B R Gavai and Krishna Murari had reserved its ruling last Tuesday, after Bhushan refused to apologise, as demanded by the court repeatedly.
While pronouncing the judgment on behalf of the Bench on Monday, presiding judge Justice Mishra said multiple opportunities were given to Bhushan to express regret.
The court, Justice Mishra said, was not afraid of either sentencing Bhushan or of debarring him. "We are not afraid of sentencing the contemnor -- either with imprisonment or by debarring him from practice. His conduct reflects obstinacy and ego, which have no place in the system of administration of justice; also, no remorse has been shown for the harm done to the institution to which he belongs."
The bench added that if it does not take cognizance of such conduct it will send a wrong message to the lawyers and litigants throughout the country. So, by showing magnanimity, instead of imposing any severe punishment, they were sentencing the contemnor with a nominal fine of Rupee one, to be deposited with the registry of the court by September 15.’’
The bench insisted that it never attempted to coerce Bhushan into submitting an apology; instead time was given to submit one, "if he so desires".
In giving a quietus to the matter, the bench said it desired an apology from the very beginning. "Directly or indirectly, the contemnor was persuaded to end this matter by tendering an apology and save the grace of the institution, as well as the individual, who is an officer of the court," noted the bench.
"However, for reasons best known to Bhushan he has neither shown regret in spite of our persuasion or the advice of the learned Attorney General. Thus, we have to consider imposing an appropriate sentence upon him," added the top court.
In a lengthy statement in his defence on August 24, Bhushan had asserted that his tweets were a constructive criticism of the judiciary as a part of the system and that retracting his statement or offering an insincere apology would amount to “contempt of my conscience."
But eventually, faced with the prospect of having to undergo jail or debarred from practice for three years, senior advocate Rajiv Dhavan, who had argued for Bhushan in the case, promptly paid the fine. Bhushan tweeted: "My lawyer & senior colleague Rajiv Dhavan contributed 1 Re immediately after the contempt judgement today (Monday) which I have gratefully accepted."
The two tweets posted on June 27 and 29 for which Bhushan was pulled up and convicted relate to his disparaging comment about the Supreme Court and its last four Chief Justices and his mocking of Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde, while he was sitting on a Harley Davidson superbike in his hometown during the coronavirus outbreak.
The bench said if it does not take cognizance of such conduct it will send a wrong message to the lawyers and litigants throughout the country. So, by showing magnanimity, instead of imposing any severe punishment, they were sentencing the contemnor with a nominal fine of Re 1 (Rupee one) to be deposited with the Registry of this Court by September 15.’’