Prashant Bhushan has shown he’s no Gandhi; by agreeing to pay fine, lawyer who defied SC has only ended up defiling justice

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Reading the tweets from the hearing, one could understand that the Supreme Court was in anguish about what had unfurled. Bhushan tried the case in the media as observed by Mishra J when he released his statements even before filing them in court.

The Prashant Bhushan saga ended today.

The Supreme Court sentenced the lawyer to a fine of Re 1 for contempt and in default to suffer imprisonment for 3 months and disbarment for three years. It has just been reported that Bhushan will be paying the fine of Re 1 and photos of Bhushan holding up a one-rupee coin are trending on social media.

As a matter of background, the lawyer had made two tweets that the supreme Court found worthy of contempt. He was pulled up and at the Bar he via this counsel defended these tweets. He refused to apologise no matter how many times the Court asked him to. He was heard on sentence and at the hearing once more maintained his stand. He invoked Gandhi when he said he could not apologise for a bonafide opinion that he held. After what must be some of the finest judicial theatre we have witnessed in a while, it came down to today.

A Re 1 fine and three months jail and 3 years disbarment in default. He’s agreed to pay the fine and the idea that he is a martyr will probably soon be put to bed along with this whole matter. He has indicated he wants to challenge the order, then so be it. But now that he’s agreed to pay the fine, there won’t be much cause celebre for his matter.

The thing is, when you invoke Gandhi, people will expect you to follow through with it. When someone says they are willing to go to jail for their principles, they are not expected to take the quick route out by accepting a token sentence of a fine of Re 1. This is as good as tendering an apology to purge oneself of contempt. A token sentence which is what a fine of Re 1 is, is acceptance of an admonition. If someone was adamant that what they did was correct, then they would go to jail for their principles.

When Bhushan invoked Gandhi and said he was ready to face the punishment, he won the admiration of an entire nation. A crusader against corruption, like Christ was ready to face crucifixion for the sins of the Judiciary. This morning the Supreme Court called his bluff with the Re 1 sentence and Bhushan was found bluffing. If he were made of sterner stuff, he would have suffered the imprisonment and brought attention to his cause.

The Supreme Court’s reputation over the past few weeks has suffered a beating thanks to this drama that has played out. The judgement is still part of the record and consequently still the law of India. The standard by which Bhushan was held in contempt is still deeply problematic as is the very law that he was convicted under. It has come under fire from many sections of the legal community for this judgement. The judgement will be reviewed hopefully, and this entire problematic law will go once and for all. For this law, the law of Contempt of Court, does nothing but put a public institution at odds with the very public that it serves. By coercively demanding and establishing respect via the law of contempt, the Supreme Court with each step, loses the public confidence, confidence which is vital to maintain its legitimacy as the final arbiter in this system that we call Government in India.

While reserving judgement in the matter, Mishra J observed:

“Tell us what is wrong in using the word ‘apology’? What is wrong in seeking apology? Will that be reflection of the guilty? Apology is a magical word, which can heal many things. I am talking generally and not about Prashant. You will go to the category of Mahatma Gandhi, if you apologise. Gandhiji used to do that. If you have hurt anybody, you must apply balm. One should not feel belittled by that.”

Which was a fair point. It was probably for the first time that I truly felt sorry for the Supreme Court in many years. They had backed themselves into a corner faced with a Bhushan who was ready to go down as a martyr for his beliefs. The only way left for them was to call his bluff and see if Bhushan would go down for his beliefs. Bhushan didn’t. Everyone knows, paying a Rs.1 fine is as good as tendering an apology, for it is willing acceptance of a “token punishment”. If Bhushan had felt he was not entitled to any punishment, there was no need for him to pay the fine. He could have challenged the same under review and waited for that outcome. But by paying the fine, he has tacitly conceded that he had probably pushed the envelope just a little to far.

I, for one am glad this entire saga is over. Reading the tweets from the hearing, one could understand that the Supreme Court was in anguish about what had unfurled. Bhushan tried the case in the media as observed by Mishra J when he released his statements even before filing them in court. The sad part, even if the two tweets were not contemptuous in my view, Bhushan’s conduct by pushing the case in the press may have actually amounted to “interference with justice” and a contempt may have actually been maintainable in my view. But alas, drama is drama and story boards are story boards. One finds that in India, a lot of these issues end up becoming less about the law and more about the outcomes. The Court was rightfully hurt by Bhushan’s tweets and Bhushan knew they were hurt. Today when he agreed to pay the fine, I lost the little respect I had gained for him when he stood on principle and refused to apologise. The person most injured because of this drama is the Supreme Court and the administration of justice in India as a whole. One only hopes something will be done soon to tend to those wounds.

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