Contempt for free speech? How Prashant Bhushan's case triggered a slew of requests to Attorney General KK Venugopal for contempt action

At least eighteen letters were written to Attorney General KK Venugopal by lawyers, law students and laypersons seeking permission to prosecute at least eight personalities for contempt of court.
Prashant Bhushan, Rajdeep Sardesai, Swara Bhasker, Kunal Kamra, Digvijay Singh and Rachita Taneja (2),YS Jaganmohan Reddy,Shefali Vaidya
Prashant Bhushan, Rajdeep Sardesai, Swara Bhasker, Kunal Kamra, Digvijay Singh and Rachita Taneja (2),YS Jaganmohan Reddy,Shefali Vaidya

Ever since the conviction of activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan for contempt of court on August 14 this year, at least eighteen letters have been written to Attorney General KK Venugopal by lawyers, law students and laypersons seeking permission to prosecute eight personalities from various fields for their tweets and statements against the Supreme Court.

The criminal contempt of court case against Bhushan was initiated by the Supreme Court for his tweets in June criticising the top court and Chief Justice of India SA Bobde. Bhushan was convicted by the Court on August 14, and was sentenced to a token fine of Re. 1 on August 31.

The case was initiated based on a complaint filed by Advocate Mehek Maheshwari. Though Maheshwari’s complaint did not have the consent of Attorney General as mandated by the Contempt of Courts Act, the Supreme Court nevertheless proceeded to initiate a suo motu case based on Maheshwari’s plea.

Over the three and a half months following Bhushan's conviction, the Attorney General received requests for consent to initiate contempt of court proceedings against journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, actor Swara Bhasker, politician and former Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra, comic illustrator Rachita Taneja, right wing activist Shefali Vaidya and Bhushan, for the second time.

Out of the eighteen letters received by the AG, eleven were against Kamra alone, while the other seven mentioned above had one letter each written against them.

Of the eight, AG Venugopal granted consent to prosecute two, while rejecting permission with respect to the other six. Consent was granted for initiating contempt against Kunal Kamra and Rachita Taneja, while it was denied with respect to Sardesai, Bhasker, Singh, Reddy, Vaidya and Bhushan. Consent against Kamra was given with respect to two separate requests.

Swara Bhasker

The AG's consent was first sought against actor Swara Bhasker, for her statements at a panel discussion held in February 2020.

The statements in question were allegedly made by Bhasker at an event hosted by the "Mumbai Collective". They pertained to the Supreme Court's judgment in the Ayodhya land dispute case. At this event, Bhasker is stated to have commented:

"We are living in a country where the Supreme Court of our country states that the demolition of Babri masjid was unlawful and in the same judgment rewards the same people who brought down the mosque... We are now in a situation where are courts are not sure whether they believe in the constitution or not."

Usha Shetty, who sought permission to initiate contempt action, claimed that the statement was intended to incite a lack of confidence in the judiciary among the people and questioned the integrity of the Court.

Venugopal, however, declined consent on August 23, stating that Bhasker’s statement is vague and general and not related to any particular court and cannot be taken seriously.

Rajdeep Sardesai

The next request for contempt was against journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, for his tweets critiquing the Supreme Court's sentencing verdict in the Prashant Bhushan case and other tweets concerning the judiciary.

On August 14, the day Bhushan was convicted for contempt of court, Sardesai had tweeted,

“Prashant Bhushan held guilty of contempt by Supreme Court, sentence to be pronounced on August 20. This even as habeas corpus petitions of those detained in Kashmir for more than a year remain pending.”

Later, when the top court imposed a sentence of Re 1 on Bhushan on August 31, Sardesai posted the following tweet:

“Rs 1 token fine imposed by SC on Prashant Bhushan in contempt case. If he doesn’t pay it, then 3 months jail sentence. Clearly, court looking to wriggle out of an embarrassment of its own making.”

Referring to tweets by Sardesai pinpointed by complainant Astha Khurana, AG Venugopal said,

"I find that the statements made by Shri Sardesai are not so serious a nature as to undermine the majesty of the Supreme Court or lower its stature in the minds of the public. The reputation of the Supreme Court as one of the great pillars of our democracy has been built assiduously over the last 70 years."

Trifling remarks and mere passing criticism, though perhaps distasteful, are unlikely to tarnish the image of the institution, he added.

Digvijay Singh

Next in line was Congress leader and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, whose tweets came under the scanner after Advocate Sumant Sudan sought the AG’s consent for contempt of court.

Singh had, in one of his tweets, criticised the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government for introducing the Special Security Force (SSF) Act, 2020, and another for expressing doubts on whether any court would strike down the law.

Venugopal replied to Sudan on October 3, stating that though the tweets were uncalled for, they did not merit action for criminal contempt of the Supreme Court.

“I have given careful consideration to the tweets. The statements made are uncalled for. However, I do not believe that they merit action for criminal contempt of the SC of India.”

YS Jagan Mohan Reddy

Supreme Court lawyer and BJP spokesperson Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay wrote to AG Venugopal seeking consent to initiate contempt proceedings against Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and his principal advisor Ajeya Kallam.

The basis for the request was a letter written by Reddy to CJI Bobde raising allegations against sitting Supreme Court judge, Justice NV Ramana. Kallam had later made the letter public at a press conference.

The AG, however, declined consent on November 8, stating that the very crux of the contempt lies in the letter written by Reddy to CJI Bobde, which has been taken note of by the Court

"Given that CJI is seized of the matter, it would not be appropriate for me to grant consent and preclude the determination of the Chief Justice in the matter", Venugopal said.

Kunal Kamra

After rejecting four requests, Venugopal granted permission for the fifth one. This was against stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra for his tweets criticising the Supreme Court for granting bail to Republic TV Editor-in-Chief, Arnab Goswami.

Venugopal received at least ten letters from law students and lawyers seeking initiation of contempt action against Kamra. Out of these, he granted consent in eight letters.

The four tweets by Kamra which formed the basis for request were as follows:

1. The Supreme Court of this country is the most Supreme joke of this country

2 .The pace at which the Supreme Court operates in matters of “National Interests” it’s time we replace Mahatma Gandhi’s photo with Harish Salve’s photo...

3. DY Chandrachud is a flight attendant serving champagne to first class passengers after they’re fast tracked through, while commoners don’t know if they’ll ever be boarded or seated, let alone served.

4. All lawyers with a spine must stop the use of the prefix “Hon’ble” while referring to the Supreme Court or its judges. Honour has left the building long back...

Kamra had also posted a morphed image of the Supreme Court building with an orange shade and depicting a BJP flag hoisted in the foyer.

Venugopal, in his November 12 consent letter, stated that the tweets were "highly objectionable" and in his opinion "constitutes criminal contempt of court."

The tweets were "not only in bad taste but clearly cross the line between humor and contempt of the court," he added.

Things did not end there. A subsequent tweet by Kamra led to another request to AG by an Allahabad High Court lawyer Anuj Singh for contempt action.

The fresh letter seeking action against Kamra was based on his latest tweet in which he was seen holding up his fingers while in an aircraft with the text:

"One of these 2 fingers is for CJI Arvind Bobde...ok let me not confuse you it’s the middle one."

AG KK Venugopal granted consent on November 20, noting that the tweet against the CJI was "grossly obnoxious" and would "equally be an insult to the Supreme Court of India."

Prashant Bhushan

Two months after his conviction in the first contempt case, a fresh request for initiation of contempt against Prashant Bhushan was made by a Supreme Court lawyer.

The letter by Advocate Sunil Singh sought contempt proceedings against Bhushan for his tweets on the CJI's recent visit to Kanha National Park.

“The CJI avails a special chopper provided by the MP Govt (authorised by the CM) for a visit to Kanha National Park and then to his home in Nagpur, while an important case of disqualification of defecting MLAs of MP is pending before him. Survival of MP government depends on this case”, Bhushan had said in tweet posted on October 21.

The AG, however, declined to grant consent, citing the fact that Bhushan had later put out another tweet apologising for a factual error in his earlier tweet.

“I do not think that it would be in public interest to give consent for proceeding on the basis of the original tweet in view of the subsequent tweet”, the AG said.

Rachita Taneja

In the latest addition to the long list of tweets that rubbed people the wrong way, comic illustrator Rachita Taneja's, like Kamra, criticised the apex court for its order passed in favour of Arnab Goswami.

Taneja, who operates the twitter handle @sanitarypanels, tweeted a cartoon depicting the BJP, the Supreme Court, and a reporter with the text "Tu Janta Nahi Mera Baap Kaun Hai" (you don't know who my father is).

Law student Aditya Kashyap subsequently wrote to the AG seeking consent to initiate contempt against Taneja.

Kashyap, in his letter, also highlighted an excerpt from another tweet by Taneja dated August 7, which stated:

“Let’s not forget how we got here.”

The caption was accompanied by a caricature depicting a quid pro quo relationship between the judiciary (especially former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi) and the Central government in delivering the Ayodhya judgment.

The AG stated that Taneja's tweets portrayed that the "Supreme Court of India was biased towards the ruling party."

I am satisfied that each of the tweets with cartoons attached is in contempt of the Supreme Court of India, hence I grant my consent”, AG said in his letter granting consent.

Shefali Vaidya

The last in the list was Shefali Vaidya, a right wing activist who has a verified Twitter handle.

Another activist, Saket Gokhale had written to the AG flagging a slew of tweets by Vaidya against judiciary and courts.

Many of those tweets urged people to disobey Supreme Court orders banning firecrackers. It referred to the Supreme Court as "Supreme Comedy" and Supreme Court judges as "vella" i.e. jobless.

One of the tweets was against retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Kurian Joseph who had questioned the effectiveness of death penalty as a punishment during the hanging of 2012 Delhi gang rape convicts.

"Would this scum have said the same thing if his daughter was a victim," Vaidya said in her tweet.

Unlike in the previous seven cases, however, AG Venugopal did not go into the merits of the Tweets. Instead, he declined to grant consent on the ground that the tweets were over a year old and, therefore, barred by limitation.

Gokhale has now responded to the AG's letter on his Twitter handle with screenshots of Vaidya's tweets which show them as having been posted this year.

The Prashant Bhushan case, which was taken up for hearing immediately after it was instituted, was criticised as being an unnecessary exercise at a time when the top court was functioning in a limited manner due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aside from the issue concerning propriety of listing that case, the Supreme Court, by registering a suo motu case based on a private individual's petition, seems to have opened a can of worms by giving an easy shortcut to fame for law students and lay persons looking to initiate contempt proceedings against celebrities.

Will the Court be able to rein in what follows or will it be overwhelmed?

It is a PIL deja vu.

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