While his behaviour may have earned him the ire of the Supreme Court, it has also brought Prashant Bhushan fame and support on social media platforms
If it is viewed as a duel, activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan has won hands down. Even as a contempt of court case, where he is awaiting sentence, he has not done too badly.
"I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal for magnanimity. I cheerfully submit to any punishment that the court may impose," Bhushan said in a statement, using a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. His stand that he will not apologise for what he believes as conscientious behaviour has won him accolades on social media platforms, where he has suddenly become a hero.
"My tweets were out of a bona fide attempt to discharge my duty as a citizen. I would have been failing in my duty if I did not speak up at this juncture of history. I submit to any penalty which the court may inflict. It would be contemptuous on my part to offer an apology," he said. He was indeed behaving like a hero, rather than as a despondent defendant.
And if not the Supreme Court per se, many of those who pride their association with the Supreme Court, jurisprudence and fairness, have felt embarrassed over the Apex Court's decision to punish the leading advocate, who has been one of the leading lights of the movement against corruption in India, for his observations anchored on a picture of Chief Justice appearing to ride a Harley Davidson bike about things that have gone wrong with the Supreme Court.
Even Attorney General K K Venugopal, who had last year urged the court to punish Prashant Bhushan for allegedly 'scandalising' the court, pitched in for sparing the rebel lawyer from punishment. The Bar Association of India itself had queered the pitch by questioning the suo moto exercise by the court, which led to Prashant Bhushan being found guilty of contempt.
Expressing its deep dismay and concern, the BAI said that the "exercise of contempt jurisdiction by the Court in this manner has potential for more self-harm than the avowed purpose of safeguarding the prestige of the institution."
In reality, nothing is startling about what Prashant Bhushan had said. Corruption at the higher judiciary has been a recurring theme in debates in judicial circles, where several Chief Justices and judges have expressed serious concerns about the shortcomings of the system.
It was not long ago that the Supreme Court found itself at the receiving end for what was described as 'indifference' to the plight of millions of migrant workers, that had shocked the nation's conscience, but failed to move the Court until in another extreme swing, the Court itself took up an activist role.
Former CJI Ranjan Gogoi, despite his unenviable record at the helm of affairs, had thundered in one of his lectures that 'judiciary today is not a poor workman who blames his tools, but it is a workman with no tools'. Not a reform but a revolution is what it needs, to be able to meet the challenges on the ground and to keep this institution serviceable for a common man and relevant for the nation," he said.
But his tenure was marked by the opposite of all that he had complained against. When the system is in such a rut, is not only fair that someone raises a red flag? What Prashant Bhushan did only amounts to this.
As it has been widely pointed out, the sanctity of the Supreme Court does not depend on a person here or there making disparaging comments. As retired Supreme Court judge Kurian Joseph observed in connection with the contempt of court proceedings case against Prashant Bhushan, "Men may come and men may go, but the Supreme Court of India should remain forever as the court of supreme justice".
Justice Kurian also raised an alarm over the Supreme Court passing a contempt of case verdict, without leaving scope for a review of the decision and suggested that the case must be handled by a larger bench than the one hearing it.
He asserted that justice must be done even if the 'heavens fall'. "But, if justice is not done or if there is a miscarriage of justice, heavens will certainly fall. The Supreme Court of India should not let it happen."
Views expressed are personal