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  • Ekta Kumar

One rupee: Heads or tails, who really won?

Heads or tails, the outcome is usually pretty clear. However in the case of Prashant Bhushan’s one rupee coin - who really won the round?

Heads or tails, the outcome is usually pretty clear. However in the case of Prashant Bhushan’s one rupee coin, who really won the round? We have all been watching the dramatic contest intently as it unfolded over the past few days. On one side was a feisty lawyer activist, and on the other the towering apex court of the country.

Nobody likes criticism, and least of all those in authority. Contempt of court as a concept existed centuries ago, when nobody dared criticise the king. It was carried forward and incorporated in our Constitution, as one of the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. It was meant to protect the judicial institutions from unnecessary criticism and motivated attacks, and thus also enabled the court to punish those who attempted to lower its authority. However in a democracy, what constitutes ‘contempt’ is bound to be questioned.

Two of Prashant Bhushan’s twitter posts started it all. One included a picture of the Chief Justice astride a superbike without a mask, with the words – ‘when he keeps the SC in lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice’. In the other he commented on the role of the last four CJI’s in safeguarding democracy. As per him, it was only constructive criticism of the judiciary, but the courts deemed otherwise. It stated, during the arguments that freedom of speech was not absolute. The 63 year old lawyer was convicted for his tweets, supposedly based on distorted facts that amounted to criminal contempt. But not everyone agreed.

The conviction led to a storm of protests across the country. Activists organised demonstrations to show their solidarity, and eminent citizens signed petitions to express their disappointment, urging the Supreme Court to withdraw. Thousands used social media to show their support for Mr. Bhushan. The case raised concerns about freedom of speech and the matter escalated. How far is too far and who should decide these limits. Battlelines were drawn.

He could have got away with an apology, putting an end to all the fuss. But Prashant Bhushan was adamant, and refused to comply. He took a stand. His lawyer was offered two three days to reconsider his decision, but he did not change his mind, as an apology would be “insincere” and a ‘contempt of his conscience’. He quoted none other than Mahatma Gandhi, in his trial saying “I do not ask for mercy”.

It was a dramatic faceoff and made interesting headlines. One man standing up against the tallest court of the country. A celebrated activist with lakhs of followers, and a well known lawyer like him could afford to take these chances. Not everyone can. And so they cheered for him on the sides, urging him to continue the crusade. And as the country watched the developments, we wondered who would blink first.

The answer is not clear. The drama of the past few days culminated in a token fine of one rupee. It was duly photographed and then ‘respectfully’ paid.

The Supreme Court was provoked and offended, but it climbed down. The fine was only symbolic. Prahsant Bhushan refused to apologise and stood by his comments, but he did pay the fine. In the end, in his reconciliatory words, it was “merely meant to express my anguish, at what I felt, was a deviation from its sterling past record”.

Perhaps it is time to end the matter gracefully. The underlying issue of freedom of speech is a serious one. In this case however, the point has been made.

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