Freedom of speech and expression is often considered one of the most pivotal fundamental right under the Indian Constitution. Since this fundamental right is not absolute and having restrictions on this right leads to chaos. People often expressing free speech under Article 19 (1) (a), when the limit is crossed, they are prosecuted. One such instance which the majority of Indians supported was the recent tweets by the Advocate Prashant Bhushan.
TWEETS TARGETING JUDICIARY: NO RIGHT TO CRITICISM?
Prashant Bhushan is a renowned public interest litigation Advocate of India. He always carries controversies with him. The recent controversy broke out when he tweeted targeting the Indian Judiciary and the Chief Justice of India S A Bobde. The respective tweets were made on 27 and 29 July 2020. The tweet targeting the Chief Justice was “CJI rides a 50 lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader at Raj Bhavan Nagpur, without a mask or helmet; at a time when he keeps the SC in Lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice!” the second tweet made by him was “When historians in the future look back at the last 6 years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the Supreme Court in this destruction, & more particularly the role of the last 4 CJIs.”
These two tweets were considered as scandalous and the main allegation was these will destroy the democracy of the country. So coming to that stand, India being a democratic country, its citizens have all the rights to criticize the organs of the Government. This will in turn lead to the fair functioning of the organs. As in the present case, Prashant Bhushan has all the right to criticize the Judiciary, which is one of the organs of the Government.
CONTEMPT OF COURT PROCEEDINGS: PROTECTION UNDER FREEDOM OF SPEECH?
In the present case, the Supreme Court took the case suo moto and started the proceedings in virtual mode. The Supreme Court would have inquired into the issue much deeper and it would have tried to prove whether the statements given in the tweets were true and then on finding the truth, the Court would have punished him. But the Apex Court literally interpreted the words in the tweets and made him guilty of criminal contempt of court. Soli Sorabjee, former Attorney General of India stated that the court would have ignored the first tweet and the second tweet was merely an opinion and he asked people have different beliefs, do you punish people for having some beliefs which are not to the liking of the Supreme Court?
Also, another question raised by many was what made the Apex Court so urgent to decide the case? Can’t the court wait till physical hearings start in the Court? It is evident from the two tweets that they did not target Indian judiciary. In fact, the tweets targeted the individual persons who are/were members of the Judiciary. A statement against a particular person will not be covered under contempt of court as they do not shake the public confidence in the institution of judiciary. If the persons against whom the statement was made was really concerned about the statements would have moved defamation case, not contempt of court. The present case has no criteria of contempt of court and they are completely protected under Article 19 (1) of the Constitution.
IMPACT OF PUNISHMENT: WILL BCI TAKES THE MATTER SERIOUSLY?
The Apex court imposed a meagre punishment on the tweets made by Prashant Bhushan, i.e., a fine of Rs. 1 and the default in payment of the fine will lead to three months imprisonment or debarring him from practice. Prashant Bhushan stated he propose to submit to the order and respectfully pay the fine, and he paid the same. Because Prashant Bhushan paid the amount, everyone left the issue and moved on to the next. But only less are aware of what could be the impact of being punished in the criminal case. The judgment in paragraph 89 stated that pursuant to the conviction in a criminal case, the Bar Council of India if it desires, can suspend the enrolment.
The Advocates Act in its Section 24A stated that if a person is convicted of an offence involving moral turpitude, then he will be disqualified from his enrolment. In addition Section 35 of the same Act stipulates that if an advocate found guilty of professional or any other misconduct, he may be suspended from being an advocate for such period and may also remove his name from the State roll of Advocates. The impact of being punished for a criminal case (in the present case, criminal contempt of court) is suspended from being an Advocate for the prescribed period as decided by the Bar Council of India. So, Prashant Bhushan might be disqualified if the Bar Council of India takes the matter in a serious note. Before deciding on this issue, the BCI has to make consolations with Bar Council of Delhi because Prashant Bhushan enrolled in Bar Council of Delhi.
A certain sect of people supports the tweets of Prashant Bhushan, while some are criticizing him. One must encourage the stern decision of Prashant Bhushan in not apologizing for his tweets before the Supreme Court when the Apex Court asked him to do so. Even Supreme Court knows the tweets of Prashant Bhushan are protected under Article 19 (1) of the Constitution, but the Apex Court does not want to encourage the same act in future by any others following this incident. So to restrict the future likewise statements, the meagre punishment was imposed.