Prashant Bhushan’s conviction stirred up the country on the right to free speech and criticism of public institutions, particularly the judiciary. The Apex Court noted that his standing as a lawyer and officer of the court as one of the primary reasons for his conviction on contempt charges. Shobha Gupta, a lawyer at the Supreme Court of India, notes how the Indian bar rallied for Prashant Bhushan for its own cause and the importance of judge-lawyer relationships in the Indian legal system.
I am not a big fan of Justice Arun Mishra who recently retired. I am in no mood either to criticise him or shower customary praises, like several of my senior colleagues may and would do.
I would rather exercise my fundamental right to remain silent. Many of his judicial actions, be it entertaining any petition by simply issuing a notice, minus the crucial interim order, his oral observations- whether related or unrelated to the matter- in the open court or his judicial pronouncements, have provided enough fuel for discussions and criticisms on various social medium platforms.
The recent case of contempt proceedings against the noted lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, who was pronounced guilty of contempt of court, has been much talked about. I am not looking to take up the questions of whether any action should at all be taken or whether a few lines of tweets are capable of lowering the majesty of the highest court of the country. The same has been has already been extensively debated by public at large.
I am also not touching on the adverse effect and the damage that it might have caused to the equation between lawyers and judges. or to the judicial system.
I am on the Silverline of this entire saga of contempt.
The message was rather loud and clear that there is always a limit to bend and that the bar and the bench need to co-exist by maintaining mutual respect.
We are living in a time when people are not only generally over-ambitious but are completely self-centric. Everybody is fighting their own battles. In this overdrive for success to achieve more and more, we have trained ourselves to be immune to and unconcerned to what is happening around. We have trained ourselves to remain silent on all issues of larger concerns because we do not want our personal goals to suffer for simply voicing one’s thoughts or echoing other voices on public causes.
Lawyers are also part of society and are thus no different. We are ambitious too. We also have our goals set. More often than not, the success of our goals depends on the opinions of others about us. We therefore cannot afford to spoil our image by voicing opinions on public platforms about judges and their acts within or outside the court’s four walls.
We have systematically and consciously learned to be silent, voiceless, and unconcerned by not reacting. We as students of Law, have been trained in all our building years of practice to say: Obliged My Lords, Very well My Lords, May it pleases My Lords, I am grateful My Lords, I am sorry My Lords, I am extremely sorry My Lords, My Lords are right, etc. etc..
We have systematically and consciously learned to be silent, voiceless, and unconcerned by not reacting.
The Prashant Bhushan contempt case may not have changed all this, but it has certainly shaken us from our slumber. It has suddenly made us discover our basic fundamental and most cherished right of freedom to speak, right to free speech, right to criticism and above all right to dissent, right to react and right to raise voice against what is wrong.
The Hon’ble Court in its recent Re. 1 cost judgment has made it clear that public outbursts cannot be taken into consideration.Yet it would still remain the silverline of this entire saga of contempt, that we the lawyers across the country felt the heat of the conviction order and realised that we cannot afford to continue to be silent. It is not just Prashant Bhushan who is held guilty, but through him we all are held guilty in advance.
Prashant Bhushan became irrelevant in the process. Each one of us became relevant. The lawyers of the country took up rather their own cause. This collective move of the Indian Bar, was to put up their protest against any such remote controlling on them even in their public lives, was to save their own freedom of speech, was to ensure their individual right of freedom to think and express, without any fear or threat.
The tweets Prashant Bhushan posted, for many, were completely unnecessary, or rather immaterial and useless. They were something to be completely ignored to and something worthy of no notice whatsoever. But the highest court of the country decided to immortalize those tweets, firstly by initiating contempt proceedings and then by making them part of the judicial pronouncement. This was probably inevitable, as those tweets were the foundation of contempt proceedings. I wish Judges had thought of all that in advance.
The immediate reaction of “NOT LIKE THIS”, from when the Hon’ble Court took suo-moto action, changed to “enough is enough” in no time once the conviction order came.
The bar which is otherwise so divided for several reasons, got united so selflessly even during this COVID- 19 situation and fearlessly made their views clear to all including the Hon’ble Judges.
The bar across the country came out together with full force and expressed its views without mincing words. Since meeting of mind was physically not possible, lawyers across the country reached out to each other, in a much faster way, through e-platforms. Lawyers across the board started getting messages through Whatsapp, and other apps, from all over. Friends, who might not have exchanged pleasantries in past few months in their personal fight with COVID-19 pandemic, suddenly started appearing in your Whatsapp chats. Interestingly, when people from different walks of life were garnering support for Prashant Bhushan through several social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the lawyers’ fraternity was fighting its own battle.
The bar across the country came out together with full force and expressed its views without mincing words.
The immediate reaction of “NOT LIKE THIS”, from when the Hon’ble Court took suo-moto action, changed to “enough is enough” in no time once the conviction order came. Lawyers started writing to each other. None of us took the issue lightly or lazily.
The need to act to react was spreading at lightning speed. Meticulously written letters addressed to Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, started being circulated online . Request were made to individual friends to sign it immediately and forward it to as many as one can.In no time, thousands of signatures were made. Protests happened in several District Courts and High Courts. This tremendous show of solidarity by the united force of the Indian bar was very encouraging and reassuring. The message was rather loud and clear that there is always a limit to bend and that the bar and the bench need to co-exist by maintaining mutual respect.
We, lawyers and the society cannot thank Justice Arun Mishra enough and other Hon’ble Judges a part of the bench, for bringing the bar together, brave and vocal. This would be possibly one of the biggest contributions of Justice Mishra to the Indian Judicial System. Obliged My Lords.
(Shobha Gupta is a lawyer at the Supreme Court of India. Views are personal.)