Right to Conscience and Freedom of Expression must be Protected
On August 14, Prashant Bhushan, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court was pronounced guilty of contempt of court by a three judge bench of the Supreme Court for two tweets he made in the last week of June. (See box)
On August 20, the bench convened to announce the sentence for Prashant Bhushan. In his response to the court, Mr Bhushan defended his action by saying that “I can only reiterate that these two tweets represented my bonafide beliefs, the expression of which must be permissible in any democracy. Indeed, public scrutiny is desirable for healthy functioning of judiciary itself. I believe that open criticism of any institution is necessary in a democracy….”.
In his statement, Bhushan refused to tender apology for his tweets, reiterating that they reflected his beliefs, and he did not want to be untrue to himself. The Supreme Court gave Bhushan two days to “reconsider his statement” and tender an “unconditional apology”. It will pronounce its sentence on August 25.
This is nothing but threatening Prashant Bhushan — if you do not publicly give up your beliefs, we will punish you. It is an attack on his right to conscience.
No one, whether she or he be a judge, a minister, or any other official of the state is above criticism. It is the right of people to express their views on how these officials are carrying out their duties.
During the hearing, even the Attorney General, KK Venugopal had to argue that Prashant Bhushan should not be sentenced for the views he had expressed on judges.
Prashant Bhushan was charged for criminal contempt of court under Section 2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, on the ground of “scandalizing the court or lowering the dignity of the court”. This Act is an amended version of the Contempt of Court Act 1926, which the British rulers enacted so as to prevent Indians from voicing their opinion against unjust actions of the colonial courts.
Every human being has the right to his or her belief and the right to express his or her opinion on public matters. The legal system in a modern democracy is expected to defend this right and not permit its violation. To use the Contempt of Court Act to deny Prashant Bhushan his right to conscience and freedom of expression — is that not lowering the dignity of the Court?
People have the duty of upholding the dignity of the Court provided it performs its duty of protecting the rights of all members of society. If on the other hand, the Court or any other State institution tramples on people’s right or panders to vested interests, then people have the right to criticise such conduct.
A person may agree or disagree with what Bhushan said in his tweets, but everyone must accept that he has the right to express his views. The institutions of the State are supposed to protect this right, ensure that it is not violated. If the expression of opinions which are not to the liking of those in power is treated as a crime, then the Indian Republic must stop claiming it is a democracy.
People of all walks of life have come out against what they perceive to be an attack on the right to conscience by a bench of the Supreme Court. Lok Raj Sangathan hails the struggle being waged by people in defence of the right to conscience and the freedom of expression.
An Attack on One is an Attack on All!
The two tweets
On June 27, 2020 he tweeted:
“When historians in 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.”
The June 29, 2020 tweet included a photo of Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and said,
“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!”