New Delhi: Advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan Monday apologised for a portion of his tweet on Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde, even as he stood by the rest of his tweets on Bobde and former CJIs that had invited a contempt notice from the Supreme Court.
Apologising for his 29 June tweet featuring a photograph of CJI Bobde “riding” a Harley Davidson bike, Bhushan said he regrets mentioning that the CJI was not wearing a helmet as he had not noticed that the bike was stationary.
“At the outset I admit that I did not notice that the bike was on a stand and therefore wearing a helmet was not required. I therefore regret that part of my tweet,” he stated in an affidavit he filed in response to the contempt notice the Supreme Court had issued against him on 22 July.
About his other tweets, however, Bhushan said they were his “bonafide impression about the manner and functioning of the Supreme Court in the past years”.
He reiterated his criticism over the restricted functioning of the Supreme Court during the lockdown and pandemic, and said bonafide critique of the actions of the CJI cannot and does not scandalise the court.
The tweets, he clarified in his affidavit, were in “no way intended to undermine the dignity of the court or the office of the Chief justice of India”.
There is a need to have a free and frank discussion about the role of any and every institution, especially an institution as critical as the Supreme Court, Bhushan asserted. People can and may disagree with his “bonafide opinion”, a sign of healthy democracy, he said.
Instances of ‘CJIs allowing destruction of democracy’
In the 142-page long affidavit Bhushan has also listed out instances where he felt the SC under the tenure of certain CJIs allowed the “destruction of democracy”. “Such expression of, however, outspoken, disagreeable and unpalatable cannot constitute contempt,” he said.
With regard to his Harley Davidson tweet aimed at CJI Bobde, Bhushan said the restricted functioning of the SC during the pandemic has “seriously imperiled” justice.
He listed the “very urgent and serious issues”, including challenges to scrapping of Article 370, which have not been heard due to the Supreme Court’s limited functioning.
“The tweet was in no way intended to undermine the dignity of the court or the office of the Chief Justice of India,” he said.
Asking Bhushan to explain why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against him, a bench led by Justice Arun Mishra had said the tweets “prima facie brought the administration of justice into disrepute”.
The court had taken cognisance of a petition filed by a lawyer against Bhushan for one of his tweets. There was, however, a technical flaw in the petition — there was no sanction from the Attorney General’s office, as is required under the rules before filing it.
The bench also issued a notice to Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, seeking his opinion on the issue. Twitter Incorporated — which deleted the two tweets in question after the hearing — was also told to reply.
Bhushan quotes sitting and former Supreme Court judges
The contempt notice against Bhushan has drawn severe criticism from former judges of the Supreme Court and high courts, jurists, former bureaucrats and social activists. A solidarity statement signed by 138 eminent personalities was released to counter the suo motu cognisance contempt proceedings against the lawyer-activist.
In his affidavit, Bhushan conceded that the right to free speech is subject to reasonable restriction. However, in his opinion, such restrictions cannot be allowed to curb “constructive criticism from persons of knowledge and standing.” And, if this is done then it would amount to “stifling of dissent”.
“Preventing citizens from demanding accountability and reforms and advocating for the same by generating public opinion is not a ‘reasonable restriction,” he said.
To support his contention, the advocate has drawn references from speeches delivered and articles written by sitting and former Supreme Court judges. He quoted Justice D.Y. Chandrachud’s lecture to say that “stifling of dissent under the watch of the Supreme Court has not only been adversely commented upon by retired judges of this very court, but even by sitting judges who have been part of the SC during the tenure of the four CJIs”.
He even referred to the press conference held by four judges in January 2018 and said “signs of democracy being in danger have come from no less than judges of the Supreme Court”.
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