280-character tweet is all it takes to destroy Indian democracy — if you believe Supreme Court

File image of the Supreme Court of India | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Text Size:

It is a grim irony that, in its insistence to cling onto public faith, the Supreme Court saw fit to publish a judgment mired in troubling notions of free speech, condemning senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan to criminal sentence in summary fashion, with negligible analysis of the defence put forth by him. Bhushan’s crime? Committing the error of critiquing a democratic institution, perhaps a tad overzealously. This, in essence, is the story of the Supreme Court’s decision in the suo moto petition against Bhushan, tried and convicted for the offence of contempt of court as a result of a mere two tweets.

The decision of the Supreme Court could benefit from deeper analysis. Yet, in doing so, I must heed editorial warning not to ‘overstep any bounds’, lest I meet a similar fate as that ordained for Bhushan – an illustration of the chilling effect that pervades India on its 73rd anniversary of freedom.

Also read: Tweets were against personal conduct of judges & not judiciary, Prashant Bhushan tells SC

“The SC in Lockdown mode”: Tweet 1

The first tweet for which Prashant Bhushan was sanctioned ostensibly criticised the Chief Justice of India (CJI) for riding an expensive motorcycle, belonging to a politician, without mask or helmet, having simultaneously kept the Supreme Court in a state of diminished functioning, thereby affecting the rights of citizens to access justice. The Court, while considering this critique, decided to split the tweet into two halves.

Ignoring the first bit, whose accuracy cannot really be contested, it chose to earnestly focus on the latter half of the tweet, which criticises the Chief Justice for inhibiting access to the Supreme Court by keeping it in “Lockdown mode”. Noting that, despite the prevalence of a pandemic, the Supreme Court had been functioning through virtual hearings – indeed, even the contemnor had participated in such hearings – the bench decries this allegation of a denial of justice against the CJI as “undoubtedly false, malicious and scandalous”.

Yet, in his Reply Affidavit, Bhushan states in clear terms that the tweet had to be read as a whole, contextually: that while the Chief Justice thought it necessary to restrict functioning of the Supreme Court, he himself was out in public bereft of mask, surrounded by people.  It was the juxtaposition of these scenarios that formed the basis of the criticism, a point entirely missed by the judgment. Surely, it cannot be scandalous to point out that the Chief Justice applied differing standards of precaution for litigants and for himself?

Moreover, it was never Bhushan’s contention that the Supreme Court had been entirely locked out, as the bench seems to assume; rather, his point was that, even with virtual hearings, the Court’s ability to process cases was significantly diminished, thus hampering access to justice. This difficulty has also been noted by the Supreme Court Bar Association and Supreme Court Advocate-on-Record Association, which passed resolutions testifying to the hindrances that arise in presenting a client’s case effectively through virtual presentations.

Good Journalism matters,

more so in a crisis

Coronavirus, economy, tension with China are events unrivalled in recent times.

They demand clear, fair & questioning reporting, writing & pictures.

ThePrint consistently brings you the stories that matter, from where they happen.

We can sustain this only if you pay for what you read & watch.