Prashant Bhushan: India finds an unlikely hero in lawyer-activist

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Prashant BhushanImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Prashant Bhushan refused to apologise to the Supreme Court and got a symbolic one-rupee fine

Indians have been riveted by a courtroom face off between a prominent lawyer-activist and the country's Supreme Court, writes the BBC's Geeta Pandey in Delhi.

Last week, a one-minute clip from Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning film Gandhi was being shared widely on WhatsApp in India.

It showed the country's independence hero, played by Ben Kingsley, in the dock, standing up to a British judge who gets more and more flustered as the hearing progresses.

After Gandhi refuses to leave the province or pay a bond so he can be released on bail, the judge asks him, "Do you want to go to jail?"

"As you wish," Gandhi responds.

Similar scenes have been playing out in the Indian Supreme Court in recent weeks, with a three-judge bench repeatedly asking the prominent lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan to apologise for criticising judges - and the lawyer repeatedly refusing.

Mr Bhushan said as his criticism was rooted in his "bonafide belief" that an apology would be "insincere" and "contempt of my conscience".

To the threat of prison, he quoted Mahatma Gandhi: "I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal for magnanimity. I cheerfully submit to any punishment that court may impose."

Image source, Reuters
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India's Supreme Court is one of the most powerful in the world

On 14 August, the court convicted Mr Bhushan of contempt of court and on Monday he was ordered to pay a symbolic fine of one rupee (0.1p) for two tweets criticising judges.

The three-judge bench ruled that if the 63-year-old didn't pay the fine by 15 September, he would have to spend three months in jail and he would be barred from law practice for three years.

Mr Bhushan said he would pay the fine but he retained the right to challenge the order and seek a review.

"I had already said that I would cheerfully submit to any penalty that can be lawfully inflicted upon me," he said in a statement. "I propose to submit myself to this order and would respectfully pay the fine."

Mr Bhushan's critics said his decision meant "acceptance of guilt", but his spirited fight for "freedom of speech" and "judicial accountability" gripped India and won him praise as a "defender of democracy" and "a hero of our times". He has been compared to Gandhi.

Mr Bhushan's face-off with judiciary began in June, when he posted two tweets to his 1.6 million followers.

In one, he commented on a viral photograph of Chief Justice Sharad Bobde sitting on an expensive Harley Davidson motorbike. In the second, he criticised the conduct of the four previous chief justices over the past six years.

The son of a former Indian law minister, Mr Bhushan is one of India's most-respected lawyers and an outspoken human rights activist who has dedicated his life to fighting cases involving public interest. For the past 35 years, he has fought hundreds of cases relating to government corruption, environment, transparency in courts, and a range of human rights issues.

According to one report, 80% of his time is spent on pro bono work, representing the poor and displaced people.

His defence in this case was led by several of India's top lawyers and his conviction led to a storm of protest in India.

Nearly 3,000 retired judges, lawyers and eminent citizens signed a statement saying holding Mr Bhushan guilty of contempt would have a "chilling effect on people expressing critical views on functioning of the top court".

Thousands took to social media to express their support for the lawyer-activist, and hundreds came out on the streets in solidarity.

Image source, Getty Images
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Prashant Bhushan outside the Supreme Court, where he heard his penalty on Monday

About 10 days back, as the Supreme Court held a crucial hearing in the case, dozens of men and women stood outside the top court in the capital, Delhi, under a grey and rainy sky, holding placards in Mr Bhushan's support. The protesters chanted slogans urging Mr Bhushan to "march on" and assuring him of their support in his fight for justice.

Nearly 1,000 miles away in the southern city of Hyderabad, lawyers stood in a silent protest outside the high court, many carrying placards that said "I am with Prashant Bhushan".

Protests were also held in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), Ranchi, and Jaipur, and the participants included lawyers, students, activists and common citizens.

On Monday, as the Supreme Court order was read out, Mr Bhushan's supporters called it a "moral victory" for the defendant and dismissed the one-rupee fine as tokenism - a face-saving move by the judiciary. Legal experts praised the judgement, saying it had avoided further confrontation.

Mr Bhushan simply tweeted a picture of himself with a one rupee coin, adding that his lawyer had donated the fine and he had "gratefully accepted".

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