The Supreme Court (SC) on Wednesday initiated suo motu (on its own motion) contempt proceedings against lawyer Prashant Bhushan for accusing the judiciary of destroying democracy and keeping courts shut during the nationwide lockdown restrictions, which were enforced from March 25 onwards in a bid to contain the spread of the raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, via his two tweets on June 27 and 29.
A three-judge SC bench, headed by Justice Arun Mishra and also included Justices BR Gavai and Krishna Murari, issued notice to Bhushan to respond by August 5.
“We are, prima facie, of the view that the aforesaid statements on Twitter have brought the administration of justice in disrepute and are capable of undermining the dignity and the authority of the institution of SC in general and the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) in particular, in the eyes of the public at large,” the court said.
San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. was also made a contemnor by the top court along with Bhushan.
Senior advocate Sajan Poovayya, who appeared for Twitter, told the SC that a tweet can be “disabled” only on a judicial order passed by a court.
“We are an independent platform unable to disable the tweet without an order from a court.”
When Poovayya asked the court to pass an order to this effect, the bench said, “Why should we direct? On your own, you should have done it.”
Poovayya told the SC that he would consult with Twitter and respond by August 5.
The court has also issued notice to Attorney-General (A-G) KK Venugopal for assisting in this case.
Bhushan did not appear, nor was he represented by any lawyer.
The court order took note of the first tweet dated June 27, which was carried in a national daily.
Bhushan put out another tweet on June 29 against which the SC received a petition for initiating contempt proceedings.
The first tweet, which was reproduced in the order, stated, “When historians in the future look back at the last six years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the SC in this destruction, and more particularly the role of the last four CJIs.”
The second tweet was aimed at the incumbent CJI SA Bobde.
Bhushan’s tweet, now part of the order, said, “The CJI rides a Rs 50-lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, without wearing a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC on lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice!”
The apex court received a petition filed by one Mahek Maheshwari on July 9 against the June 29 tweet.
The matter was taken up on the administrative side.
The SC found that A-G Venugopal’s consent as required under Rule 3 (c) of the Rules to Regulate Proceedings for Contempt of the Supreme Court, 1975, was not obtained.
Then, the apex court decided to take up the matter as a suo motu petition on the judicial side to “pass appropriate orders”, the SC order said.
This is the third contempt plea against Bhushan.
Earlier, Bhushan, in an interview to news magazine Tehelka that was published on September 5, 2009, had alleged that half of the past 16 CJIs were corrupt.
Though the contempt plea was initiated in January 2010 and was last heard on May 2, 2012, this matter has been listed again before a bench, headed by Justice Mishra, for July 24 (Friday).
Bhushan’s father and former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan had intervened in the decade-old case and had filed a sealed cover giving instances of corruption against former CJIs.
Bhushan had also accused the Centre of misleading the court on the decision to appoint M Nageswara Rao as interim director of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) via a tweet on February 1, 2019.
The lawyer had claimed that the High-Powered Committee, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, did not decide on Rao as told to the apex court by A-G Venugopal.
Later, the A-G and the Union of India had filed a contempt plea against Bhushan.
Both the Tehelka interview and Rao appointment contempt pleas are still pending.