A 100-plus collective of former judges, retired senior government officials and ambassadors, activists and academics has urged the Supreme Court to withdraw its decision to initiate contempt proceedings against lawyer Prashant Bhushan, arguing that the suo motu case appears to be an attempt at “stifling” criticism.
The signatories noted that in the past few years, serious questions have been raised by all sections of society about the “reluctance of the Supreme Court to play its constitutionally mandated role as a check on governmental excesses and violations of fundamental rights of people by the state”.
“These questions have been raised by all sections of society, media, academics, civil society organisations, members of the legal fraternity and even by sitting and retired judges of the Supreme Court itself. Most recently, the Supreme Court’s reluctance to intervene in a timely manner to avert the migrant crisis during the lockdown came under intense public scrutiny.
“Concerns have also been raised regarding the decision of the court to not restart physical hearings, even in a limited manner, despite passage of five months since the onset of the Covid pandemic,” a statement issued by the signatories said.
The signatories to the statement include former judges Madan Lokur and A.P. Shah, historian Rajmohan Gandhi and former chief information commissioner at the Central Information Commission Wajahat Habibullah.
The statement urged the Supreme Court judges to take note of these concerns and engage with the public in an open and transparent manner.
“The initiation of contempt proceedings against Mr Bhushan, who had articulated some of these concerns in his tweets, appears to be an attempt at stifling such criticism, not just by Prashant Bhushan but by all stakeholders in the Indian democratic and constitutional set-up,” the statement said.
An institution as important as the Supreme Court of a country must be open to public discussion without the fear of retribution, the statement stressed, pointing out that criminal contempt as an offence has been circumscribed and made redundant in most functioning democracies.
The Supreme Court, acting on its own, had initiated contempt proceedings against Bhushan last week for his tweets on the court’s “role” in the “last six years” and a photograph of Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde on a motorbike. The tweets undermine the dignity of the CJI’s office in the public eye, the court said.
The statement issued on Monday sought withdrawal of these proceedings “in the interest of justice” and “to maintain the dignity of the Supreme Court”.
It underlined that Bhushan has been “a relentless crusader for the rights of the weakest sections of our society and has spent his career in pro bono legal service to those who do not have ready access to justice”. He has fought cases in the Supreme Court on issues ranging from environmental protection, human rights and civil liberties to corruption in high places and has been an outspoken champion for judicial accountability and reforms, especially in the higher judiciary, the statement added.