That Prashant Bhushan is an annoying gadfly is a fact not an opinion. But as FPJ columnist Bhavdeep Kang had once noted, Mr. Bhushan while ‘occasionally over-the-top’, is a gadfly that keeps democratic institutions ‘straight and narrow’.
In fact, a running joke on Twitter has been that Prashant Bhushan should know that PIL doesn’t stand for ‘Prashant Interest Litigation’.
While a hyperventilating media is prone to call every other day a dark day, the judgement against Prashant Bhushan by the apex court of the world’s largest democracy will not be looked back upon fondly.
In a stunning example of verbosity which is opposite the pithiness of a medium like Twitter, Justice Arjun Mishra wrote a 108-page judgement to describe two Prashant Bhushan tweets.
Other than anonymous trolls and BJP leaders looking to suddenly get attention, it was a rare instance of someone taking those tweets seriously.
Incidentally, tweets can be considered defamation and the Delhi HC had noted that RTs are endorsements and liable for defamation, as they told AAP leader Raghav Chadha in September 2017 after a case was filed by Arun Jaitley.
Back to Bhushan. The court noted that Bhushan has over 30 years of experience and such conduct was not expected of him.
While millennials might view Prashant Bhushan as a trigger-happy Twitter user, Bhushan has a legacy as a pugnacious advocate who has challenged various ruling dispensations. In his three-decade-long legal innings, he has challenged the government on the 2G spectrum and coal block allocations brining the UPA.
He was also part of India Against Corruption movement and prevented PSU oil companies from being privatised.
In its 108-page judgement, the court was actually bothered about the virality of his tweets reaching millions, which would fly against the received wisdom that the judiciary shouldn’t be swayed by public opinion.
Former NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan noted: “On the eve of our Independence Day, the country’s highest court, in the world’s largest democracy, has said it cannot be criticised, that it is above criticism.”
Advocate Nikhil Mehra wondered: “What are acceptable limits of criticism of the Supreme Court in light of the #prashantbhushan judgement? Or is it a case of show me the man and I'll show you the law? I never thought I'd see a day where the contempt law would be used in this manner.”
Historian Irfan Habib – with the usual flourish for exaggeration --- wondered if even the British ‘ever punished dissenting or even critical voices of lawyers, poets, writers, and intellectuals this way’.
News anchor Rahul Kanwal wrote that the SC ‘erred’.
Most sane Twitter users, irrespective of ideology, deemed the judgement to be a turning point.
This wasn’t even the first time Mr Bhushan criticised the judiciary but by bringing a contempt notice against him for tweets, it points to the changing equation between public discourse and the judiciary.
Incidentally, the court dropped the contempt notice against Twitter, noting that it was just a medium.
Right now, there’s a lot of joy among BJP supporters, who are hailing Bhushan’s guilty sentence, but they should know that what’s sauce for the goose can become sauce for the gander. Those feeling the afterglow of schadenfreude should note that the same law could be used against them.
That Prashant Bhushan might have suggested the contempt of court law doesn’t change the reality.
The courts of law are always seen as the last resort for common man, and the Supreme Court in particular is always expected to come their recourse.
Whether it’s striking down bad laws like Section 377 or resolving disputes like the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the Supreme Court always promised to stand as the last bulwark against tyranny and injustice.
Sadly, the judgement against Prashant Bhushan suggests otherwise. The irony is the Supreme Court itself had said barely a month ago that a voice of ‘dissent in a democracy can’t be shut down’.
It’s sad that SC itself chose to be the organ to do so.