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Prashant Bhushan and His Contempt Case – and Something More

Author: R. Veera Raghavan
Publication: RVR India Blog
Date: August 30, 2020
URL:      https://rvr-india.blogspot.com/2020/08/prashant-bhushan-and-his-contempt-case.html

Prashant Bhushan is a lawyer and activist – not a Mahatma Gandhi in any way like he fervently projected himself earlier this month.  He did so when the court was hearing him to decide if it should award any punishment for two contempt-of-court charges it upheld against him.

The supreme court first examined Prashant Bhushan’s defence to the two charges of contempt of court, but was not convinced and found him guilty on both the charges on 14th August. As a next step, it heard him on what punishment would be right for his offence. That was when Prashant filed an elaborate statement which included these lines. “I can only humbly paraphrase what the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi had said in his trial: I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal to magnanimity.  I am here, therefore, to cheerfully submit to any penalty that can lawfully be inflicted upon me for what the Court has determined to be an offence, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.”

To know why Prashant sounded hollow and pretentious in comparing himself with Mahatma Gandhi, consider a few things.

Prashant Bhushan has ongoing proceedings against him for contempt of court on three charges.  The first is about a statement he made in a 2009 interview to Tehelka magazine when he said: “In my view, out of the last 16 to 17 chief justices, half have been corrupt. I can’t prove this though we had evidence against ____, ____ and ____ (the 3 names he said are omitted here) on the basis of which we sought their impeachment.”

Prashant is a seasoned lawyer. He knew he had no proof on his claim, and he said it too in his interview. Still he went public with his claim. When he had to explain himself to the supreme court in an affidavit, the core of his reply was “That is my honest and bona fide perception” and he built his defence on that plank, offering no proof for his accusation – and he knows what proof means in a court. 

The supreme court is yet to give its finding on the charge over his 2009 statement, and the hearing in this case comes up next month.  Of the three charges against Prashant, this one reflects his severest attack on the supreme court and its many chief justices, with no proof against the judges he had in mind. So be sure that Prashant will want to look more Gandhian over here too.

The second charge of contempt the supreme court laid against Prashant was about his tweet in June this year, alleging that in the last six years democracy had been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency and that the supreme court, especially its last four chief justices, had played a particular role in that destruction.  The third charge against him, less severe than the other two, is about his another tweet in June this year, cheaply commenting on the photo of the present chief justice mounted on a motorcycle on its stand, as if the chief justice was responsible for the supreme court “denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice” because it was on lockdown mode.

The supreme court has already found Prashant guilty of contempt on the second and third charges and will soon pronounce punishment for the same, while the hearing on the first charge is yet to be completed.  Let the court form its opinion.  Meanwhile, scores of well-known lawyers, retired civil servants, former judges, activists, writers, journalists and public men have come out in support of Prashant on all the three charges against him and are critical of the supreme court in this regard. All this, as also Prashant’s claim to be Gandhi-like, need a look.

Are you attracted to Mahatma Gandhi and his ways and the all-round effect of what he did humbly, truthfully and steadfastly? Do you also know what Prashant Bhushan had said for which he is facing contempt-of-court proceedings, and the effect of what he said? If yes, you will see Prashant in his true colours.

If you have only heard that Mahatma Gandhi is the father of our nation and know nothing much about him, and if you have not known much about Prashant or the effect of what he had said in contempt, you could find his allusion to Mahatma Gandhi stirring.

Just look at the effect of Prashant’s claims about many former chief justices of India. In 2009 he said that “out of the last 16 to 17 chief justices, half have been corrupt”.  So, he clearly meant that half out of those 16 or 17 chief justices were not corrupt and were clean.  But he did not publicly point out who among those 16 or 17 chief justices were corrupt according to him, and who were clean in his view.

What did Prashant expect all other judges, all other lawyers and the general public in India to understand?  Would they not suspect, if they went by Prashant’s omnibus allegation, that the unidentified clean among those 16 or 17 could have been corrupt – since Prashant didn’t specify who was clean and who was not? But Prashant didn’t care. He did not identify the 8 or 9 former chief justices whom he considered as corrupt, because that could more easily invite actions for defamation from those he specifically targeted, and other actions too in law, and he would find it hard to defend himself, especially when he admitted he had no proof. He cleverly combined those names he had in mind with other names, hoping that by mixing those names he could escape legal action. But a contempt-of-court case came to be registered against him in 2009 itself.

Leave alone legalities and the issue of contempt which the supreme court will address. If Prashant considered some 8 out of 16 or 17 former chief justices to be clean – which is what his allegation means - does he imagine what anguish and agony he would cause to those 8 judges and their families when he clubbed their clean names with those of others whom he thought were corrupt? If he cannot realise this, can he compare himself with Mahatma Gandhi in any context for any purpose? If he did realise this and still made his accusation in 2009, what a heartless person he then was, and how unfit he now is to bring in the name of Mahatma Gandhi before the supreme court? 

All this is just to tell ourselves that Prashant Bhushan is vague, pretentious and self-glorifying on his own showing – not that he was right in suggesting that some 8 former chief justices were corrupt.  He has not produced any material or proof to show that any one of the 16 or 17 former chief justices he mentioned was corrupt. So he has wantonly and deeply wounded all those 16 or 17 individuals and their families, but still wants to stand next to Mahatma Gandhi.

Everyone in India uniformly understands what ‘corruption’ means. That is commonly understood as equivalent to bribery, as the giving and accepting of money or money’s worth in exchange for official favours.  But in his affidavit placed before the supreme court Prashant attempts an escapist explanation.  His defence is that by the word “corrupt,” what he meant was “of doubtful integrity” and that he had used that word “with reference to non-financial behaviour, or other kinds of conflict of interest or misconduct by judges”.  This lawyerly explanation, apart from its doubtful legal value, cannot remind us of Mahatma Gandhi.

There is something more to tell us why Prashant is unfit to invoke the name of Mahatma Gandhi.  In March 1922, Mahatma Gandhi appeared before Mr. C. N. Broomsfield, ICS, District and Sessions Judge of Ahmedabad, to face three criminal charges of sedition, for having written three articles in Young India which according to the prosecution brought into hatred or contempt or excited disaffection towards the government in British India.

Mahatma Gandhi openly pleaded guilty to the charges against him, saying that preaching disaffection was a passion with him. He also read out his statement, which he submitted to the court, that included these words: “… I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system. India is less manly under the British rule than she ever was before. I consider it to be a sin to have affection for the system. And it has been a precious privilege for me to be able to write what I have in the various articles, tendered in evidence against me.”

Without contesting the charges against him, and after instantly admitting guilt, Mahatma Gandhi further said in court: “I am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen…….”. In the present day, Prashant Bhushan hotly contests the charges against him, then when the supreme court adjudges him guilty he wants the hearing on punishment to be postponed on the plea that he wants to file a review petition, and when the court rejects the plea for postponement he files a statement to the supreme court invoking the scenario of Mahatma Gandhi facing a 1922 trial.  Can you imagine Mahatma Gandhi telling the court he wants to file a review petition against the court’s verdict of guilt so he could get out of conviction and then say in the same breath he would cheerfully submit to any penalty? In his hurry to speak like the Mahatma, Prashant didn’t feel his self-contradiction. 

Prashant Bhushan has no doubt done good work in the field of public interest litigation, and he deserves credit for all that.  But he has gone heady and arrogant too, wants to wear a halo and has gone in wrong directions.  He is unable, or doesn’t want to, gracefully admit his wrong and genuinely apologise for the deep hurt he has caused to some judges – contempt or no contempt, which is a secondary issue. If these contempt-of-court charges had not been brought against him, he would not have expressed even the half-hearted regret he has placed on record as a way to escape punishment by court.

If calling judges corrupt without proof but only on the basis of one’s ‘bona fide perception’ is not contempt of court, as Prashant wants the supreme court to rule, many powerful politicians and businessmen could employ new ways to shame and subdue judges – that is more likely to happen in India.  If Prashant Bhushan succeeds in his argument of ‘bona fide perception’, the independence of our judiciary will be severely dented. 

Surely, judges have to remain independent and free from extraneous influences.  Here, let us not also forget that they are all drawn only from the stock of lawyers we have, who are all the products of our law colleges.  How good are our present-day law colleges, and how well-read and principled are our young lawyers of today and do they have enough live role models in the profession, compared to those India saw in its initial years after independence? Why does not Gandhian Prashant talk about shortcomings in these areas and work for their improvement? All the good judges we have today, let’s us remember, are God’s gift in the present environment.  Let us not hound many of them. 

Yes, many well-known persons - including lawyers, retired civil servants and some retired judges - have now stood with Prashant Bhushan and are critical of the supreme court over the contempt actions against Prashant. But just imagine: If Prashsant had never made any of those statements for which he faces the court now, but Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had uttered them, how many among all those who now support Prashant and fault the supreme court, would have backed Ravi Shankar Prasad? One percent, is my guess.

Not just that. If Narendra Modi, instead of Prashant Bhushan, had any time said that eight out of the previous sixteen or seventeen chief justices of India were corrupt in any sense or that some four chief justices of the supreme court had played a key role in the destruction of our democracy, or had even commented on a photo of a chief justice like Prashant did, within the next hour one man will publicly ask the supreme court to initiate suo motu contempt proceedings against Modi. That would be Prashant Bhushan.


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