The Supreme Court on Tuesday reserved for orders a decade-old contempt case against noted civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan , whose office said he refused to apologise but has agreed to issue a statement that his remarks about judicial “corruption” in an interview to Tehelka magazine in 2009, was not meant to hurt judges’ families or tarnish the judiciary.
A two-page judicial order published later in the day said the court was yet to receive the “explanation/apology” “submitted” by Mr. Bhushan and Tarun Tejpal, the then editor-in-chief of Tehelka .
Hearing post explanation
The three-judge Bench led by Justice Arun Mishra said it would hear the contempt case if “we do not accept the explanation/apology”.
The flow of events on Tuesday started with a surprise when Justice Mishra asked senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, appearing for Mr. Bhushan, to suggest a “solution” in the case.
“You (Mr. Bhushan) may have crossed the thin line between freedom of speech and contempt. But this system belongs to you... Can you (to Mr. Dhavan) suggest some solution to avoid this rigmarole? You can solve it. You have to save the grace of this system because it belongs to you all... You suggest to us a solution,” Justice Mishra asked.
The interaction between Justice Mishra and Mr. Dhavan happened in the brief moments when the virtual court proceedings was available on the TV screen in the media room situated inside the Supreme Court annexe building. Presspersons saw Mr. Dhavan being connected on his mobile phone before the screen went blank. The rest of the hearing was done away from the public eye.
A communication released by Mr. Bhushan’s office later in the day filled in that the judges heard Mr. Dhavan and senior advocate Kapil Sibal, for Mr. Tejpal, on a WhatsApp call.
During this interaction, Mr. Bhushan refused to apologise and said the word ‘corruption’ was used in the interview in a wide sense to mean “lack of propriety”. He did not intend to mean the judiciary was financially corrupt.
“If what I have said caused hurt to any of them or to their families in any way, I regret the same,” Mr. Bhushan’s office communication quoted from a statement he has agreed to issue.
Plea for full hearing
The communication went on to say that the judges again assembled in the afternoon and “Justice Mishra indicated that he may pass an order holding that any statement of corruption in the judiciary would amount to per se contempt”.
Mr Dhavan responded that the court should first hear the parties fully on facts and law. It was after this that the court reserved the case for orders.
A suo motu contempt case instituted against Mr. Bhushan this year is listed before the same Bench on August 5.
On June 22, the Bench had initiated suo motu contempt proceedings against Mr. Bhushan, for his tweets on the “role” of the apex court in the “last six years” and about a photograph of Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde on a motorbike. The court had observed in the order that the tweets undermined the dignity of the Supreme Court and the office of the Chief Justice in the public eye.
Mr. Bhushan has replied that an expression of an opinion or bonafide anguish, however unpalatable or outspoken, does not amount to contempt by scandalising the court.
Veteran journalists N. Ram and Arun Shourie along with Mr. Bhushan have also filed a separate writ petition challenging “scandalising the court” as an “incurable vague” ground to initiate contempt in a democracy. They have said it may affect the rights to dissent and free speech.