190816 india supreme court
Supreme Court of India Image Credit: PTI

Last week, Prashant Bhushan, a prominent Indian activist, and lawyer, was found guilty of contempt of court by the Supreme Court (SC).

Is this a big deal? Not really, though the punishment could be a fine or six months imprisonment. Bhushan is likely to get away with the fine.

Bhushan is a very well known civil rights activist and represents many important cases on behalf of rights groups.

One such case is the acquisition of Rafael war jets from France at a much higher price by the Narendra Modi government than approved by the previous government years ago. The commission from the Rafael jets runs into hundreds of crores and the Ambanis stand to gain.

What Bhushan really wanted to say probably was that he expected no justice from the Supreme Court as far as his cases before it are concerned. But these words, simple as they seem, could not be said. Because that really would be contempt of court

- C.P. Surendran

Bhushan’s criticism of the present BJP government has been strident. Of late, quite a few judgements taken by the SC could be seen to be endorsing the government’s hard if repressive measures.

This includes the abrogation of article 370 relating to Kashmir’s special status and that state’s continuing shutdown, and the Ayodhya Land Dispute judgement, which went in favour of the Hindu trusts.

What really ignited the confrontation between the SC and Bhushan was a tweet that the advocate put out toward the end of June.

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The June 29 tweet was specifically directed at the Chief Justice of India, S. A. Bobde, who, in Nagpur, was seen sitting on a Harley Davidson bike, checking it out: “CJI rides a Rs5 million motorcycle belonging to a BJP leader … without a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC in Lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access Justice!”

The bike belonged to the son of a BJP leader. Justice Bobde did not know that, he says. He is a bike lover, as he is a dog lover. The justice sat on the bike, someone sent the picture out on social media and, as is the current fashion, history was made.

The bike-loving judge

The bike-tweet makes only a curious sense, no matter how public-spirited it was meant to be. Had the bike belonged to a leader from the Opposition, would the offence be extenuated? The chief justice was not riding the bike. He merely sat on it.

Why should a judge or a lawyer not sit on a good looking bike if the owner has no problems with it? If, instead of a Harley Davidson, the judge sat on a lesser bike or a well-decked auto-rickshaw would it be as great a crime?

That the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is a dog lover or takes an interest in superbikes, should come as a matter of great relief to the public.

That his judgements are not of an obsessive temperament, that he has other interests that exert a balancing influence on judgements ought to be reassuring to Indians: at least, his lordship is all there . And we can’t say that for sure for most people in most professions.

But as in so many things in India’s political and social affairs, the discourse is regulated by keywords, not the meaning of the sentences they constitute; the words are already invested with meaning, thoughts are already in place. You need merely retweet them.

In the bike-tweet, the trigger words are Harley Davidson or the alleged cost price of the bike, Rs5 million; the price tag is made out to be directly related to denial of fundamental rights of (poor) Indians.

Negative association by adjacency

You would not be entirely wrong to detect an element of negative association by adjacency — a judge seen in the company of an expensive bike — is working at outrage, and it always works well on social media.

In Jorge Borges’s short story, The Garden of Forking Paths, the protagonist, a spy and a killer, who likes to think of himself as a victim, as he searches for his target, mulls: ‘I was struck by the thought that a man may be the enemy of their men, the enemy of other men’s moments, yet not be the enemy of a country — of fireflies, words, gardens, watercourses, zephyrs.’

Perhaps Borges, writing in the middle of the last century, is forecasting to Indians why they love their country but at the same time hate fellow Indians their ‘moments.’ The Harley Davidson moments.

What Bhushan really wanted to say probably was that he expected no justice from the Supreme Court as far as his cases before it are concerned. But these words, simple as they seem, could not be said. Because that really would be contempt of court.

Speech has lost clarity. When India cries out, for instance, that press freedom is at stake, what it really means is that media barons are looking for mercy — and favours, and licenses for their other businesses — from the government in power.

This is primarily because the Indian media, unlike its Western counterparts, are not founded on values of enlightenment so much as built on token gestures in that direction.

The tokenism explains to a great extent what V.S. Naipaul often characterises as a pervasive Indian quality: shoddiness. It means a thing is there and not there at the same time. So India is a democracy, but not quite. A spooky place.

Indian institutions are increasingly caught in careerism, which all good Indians, in fact, encourage to the detriment of the institutions.

Doctor, engineer, and Indian Administrative Service officers, are all prevailed upon to do well in their respective careers.

If the guiding value, then, is a career, you have no option but to conform to the overall well-being of the institution which in a spooky democracy represents the government in power, but not necessarily the ideals of justice.

Judges are no exception to careerism. The reason why the supreme court is the target of Bhushan’s just ire is that it has become the dumping ground of grievances as the rest of the system is failing in being fair and efficient.

A judge sitting on a superbike is not a crime. But a lawyer, whose cases are pending before the same judge, tweeting himself silly about it is a sign that the garden is going to seed.

— C. P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.