At a time when lawyers are being fined by the Supreme Court for Public Interest Litigations on frivolous issues, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan has been continuing his crusade using this powerful instrument of law. However, Bhushan’s activism against corruption has earned more critics than fans in the power corridors.
Bhushan, in his over three decade experience as a lawyer, has ruffled feathers – from the government to the judiciary. While the senior advocate stood his ground uncompromisingly against the quantum of punishment in a contempt case in the Supreme Court on Thursday, this is certainly not the first time that he has had a run-in with the higher judiciary.
The present contempt case in which he has been charged is in fact the result of his decade-long battle for accountability in the higher echelons of the judiciary.
This contempt case is linked to his recent tweet criticising the sitting Chief Justice of India, Justice SA Bobde, and a 2009 interview in which he had called half of the 16 former CJIs ‘corrupt’.
Bhushan’s Run-Ins With The Higher Judiciary
In November 2017, Prashant Bhushan walked out of the court of the then Chief Justice of India, Justice Dipak Misra, questioning his propriety. A Constitution bench headed by Justice Misra was hearing the allegations against judges being bribed to secure a favourable order in a medical college admission scam which was being probed by the CBI.
This was not the first time that Prashant Bhushan had had a heated argument with Supreme Court judges.
His activism to restore judicial accountability in the apex court goes back to 1998, when he, along with his father, former Law Minister Shanti Bhushan, and other lawyers formed the Committee on Judicial Accountability to bring transparency to the higher judiciary. The Committee prepared a charge sheet to impeach Justice MM Punchhi and obtained the signatures of 25 Rajya Sabha MPs. But the matter died down as Justice Punchhi was appointed CJI. Since then, Prashant Bhushan has been leading the campaign for judicial accountability and reform.
As a crusader for accountability and transparency in the functioning of judges, Bhushan successfully fought the case of RTI activist SC Aggarwal in 2009, which resulted in the judges having to disclose their assets on the websites of the courts.
Bhushan was also the man behind the notice for the impeachment motion in parliament against Justice PD Dinakaran, which subsequently led to his resignation in 2011.
Prashant Bhushan Always Kept His Distance From Politicians & Corporates
Though Prashant Bhushan is the son of a former Law Minister, he was never seen in the company of politicians till 2012, when he became a founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Be it the Congress supporters, the BJP and right-wing activists or the left liberals, Prashant Bhushan has drawn flak from all quarters over the years for raising people’s issues.
His PILs – on 2G Spectrum scam, the Radia tapes, Coalgate scam, and the appointment of PJ Thomas as the Chief Vigilance Commissioner – kept the UPA government on its toes.
In September 2011, Bhushan filed a PIL against the ambitious nuclear programme of the Manmohan Singh government seeking to fix accountability of the suppliers for the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. The crusade led by Prashant Bhushan turned out to be the final nail in the coffin of the Congress-led UPA government with the ‘India against Corruption’ campaign.
Prashant Bhushan: A ‘Punching Bag’ For BJP & Right-Wingers
Prashant Bhushan has been a punching bag for the BJP and right wing supporters. He had a run-in with the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi after the Narmada Bachao Andolan verdict in 1995. He was also the amicus curiae for the post-Godhra riots case.
He has routinely drawn flak from BJP supporters and right wing groups for raising issues such as human rights violation in Kashmir, voicing the demands of adivasis, concerns over fake encounters of Naxals, the revocation of the controversial AFSPA, and of course, for being the lawyer of writer and activist Arundhati Roy.
As the ‘India Against Corruption’ campaign culminated in the birth of the Aam Aadmi Party, Prashant Bhushan drew flak from many of his left-liberal friends for founding a political party with Arvind Kejriwal. The attack from within his own circle continued till his unceremonious ouster from the party in March 2015.
Ever since Prashant Bhushan took up his first PIL on limestone quarrying in the Doon Valley in 1983, he has been in direct conflict with corporate houses.
In the 2G Spectrum scam case, he demanded the prosecution of top industrialists like Ratan Tata, Anil Ambani and others. He opposed the Srikrishna Committee report on Telangana, alleging that the corporate houses dictated the terms. He frequently ruffles feathers of corporate bigwigs for raising issues like land rights, environmental concerns, and rehabilitation of those affected by industrial projects and development.
Prashant Bhushan: The People’s Person
If there is one lawyer in the country who has lived by the true spirit of Public Interest Litigation introduced in 1986 by Justice PN Bhagwati, it is Prashant Bhushan. To this end, Bhushan has over 500 PILs to his credit.
In 1983, the well-known environment activist Vandana Shiva came to Bhushan with the Doon Valley mining case. This was the first PIL Bhushan ever took up. In 1984, after the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, he joined the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and fought for the riot victims. Since then, Bhushan has tried to always reach out and take up the cases of the poor and marginalised, pro bono.
In 1988, for the first time, the fight of the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy for compensation reached the Supreme Court, and Bhushan was there to offer his service.
From the plights of the farmers of Tamil Nadu to the human rights violations in Kashmir, Prashant Bhushan has taken up almost all major people’s issues.
Prashant Bhushan: From ‘Drop Out’ to Ace Lawyer
Prashant Bhushan joined IIT-Madras but quit after one semester to pursue a two-year BSc programme with Philosophy, Economics and Political Science. He went to Princeton University for higher studies in Philosophy, but returned to India without completing it. Thereafter, he started his career as a lawyer in 1983.
During the hearing of the election case against the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Prashant Bhushan, an undergraduate student, had the opportunity to attend the hearings, as his father Shanti Bhushan was the lawyer for the petitioner Raj Narain. Inspired by this high-profile case, Bhushan, still a student at the time, wrote his first book The Case That Shook India in 1978. His second book was on the Bofors scandal, titled, Bofors, the Selling of a Nation in 1990.
(Sahasranshu Mahapatra is a Delhi-based journalist and an alumnus of the CLC, DU who writes on legal and political issue. He tweets @sahas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)