The penalty may be mild, but its import is quite grave. In imposing a nominal fine of one rupee on advocate Prashant Bhushan for criminal contempt of court, and, in the event of default, asking him to serve a three-month simple prison term and be debarred for three years from legal practice, the Supreme Court has bared its dark, intolerant side. That this was in response to tweets that contained criticism of the current CJI and some of his predecessors, diminishes the Court’s stature much more than the upstanding lawyer’s tweets that contained insinuations and opinions that the judiciary found unpalatable. During the hearing on sentencing , it appeared that the Bench had painted itself into a corner and was looking for a way out by seeking an apology so that a quietus could be given to the whole issue. However, Mr. Bhushan was in no mood to oblige , placing his bona fides and conscience above the need to give a face-saving option to the Court to close the case. It is unfortunate that the Court did not heed the Attorney General’s wise counsel that it should display magnanimity by not imposing any sentence, and by considering the tweets as bona fide expression of criticism aimed at improving the institution’s stature.
The 82-page sentencing verdict , much like the 108-page judgment finding Mr. Bhushan guilty, sets much store by the claim that it is not so much the reputation of individual judges that the Court is seeking to protect, but the standing of the institution in the eyes of the public, whose faith and trust are necessary for its sustenance. If the judiciary’s majesty, dignity and trustworthiness were indeed the values at stake, it would have been far more advisable for the Court not to have taken up this matter on its own motion. For instance, the defence of truth taken by Mr. Bhushan has been characterised as something that aggravates the contempt. The reasoning is right. Past CJIs and retired judges whose conduct and opinions were sought to be marshalled in Mr. Bhushan’s defence could not have been embroiled in the current proceedings. However, this was fairly obvious when the Court issued notice to him. Surely, someone cannot be found guilty of contempt without giving him an opportunity to explain his view that the CJIs of the last six years had contributed to the “destruction of democracy”. This proceeding was fated to shine a light on the Court’s conduct rather than on the actions of the contemnor. In the ultimate analysis, it is not a verdict that purges Mr. Bhushan of any contempt. Rather, it comes across as an unfair, but inevitable punishment for his refusal to apologise or express regret for his opinions on the conduct of the judiciary in recent times.