The Supreme Court Thursday rebuked Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for wrongly attributing to the apex court his "chowkidar chor hai" remark against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in connection with the Rafale case, but closed the contempt proceedings against him with a "word of caution" that he must be more careful in future.
It was "unfortunate" that Gandhi did not "verify" and made repeated statements in this regard as if the top court had given an approval to his allegations against the Prime Minister, the apex court held.
However, it was "far from the truth" and persons holding such important positions in the "political spectrum" must be more careful, it said while dealing with the criminal contempt petition filed by Bharatiya Janata Party MP Meenakshi Lekhi against Gandhi, who was then the Congress Party's president.
A bench, comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph, said the matter was "compounded" by the Congress leader by filing a 20-page affidavit with a large number of documents annexed, rather than "simply accepting the mistake and giving an unconditional apology".
It however closed the contempt proceedings against him by taking into account the additional affidavit filed by Gandhi in which he had tendered an unconditional apology and said that the attributions were entirely unintentional, non-willful and inadvertent.
"We must note that it is unfortunate that without verification or even perusing as to what is the order passed, the contemnor (Gandhi) deemed it appropriate to make statements as if this court had given an imprimatur to his allegations against the Prime Minister, which was far from the truth," said Justice Kaul, who penned the verdict for the CJI and himself.
"This was not one sentence or a one off observation but a repeated statement in different manners conveying the same. No doubt the contemnor should have been far more careful," the bench said.
Justice Joseph, who wrote a separate but concurring verdict and dismissed the review petitions filed in the Rafale case, agreed with the view of Justice Kaul.
Referring to the May 5 additional affidavit in which Gandhi had tendered an unconditional apology, the bench said "better wisdom dawned" on his counsel only during the course of arguments and a subsequent affidavit was filed stating that he held the apex court in the highest esteem and respect and never intended to interfere with the process of administration of justice.
"We do believe that persons holding such important positions in the political spectrum must be more careful. As to what should be his campaign line is for a political person to consider," it said.
"However, this court or for that matter no court should be dragged into this political discourse valid or invalid, while attributing aspects to the court which had never been held by the court," the bench said, adding, "Certainly Mr Gandhi needs to be more careful in future."
It further said, "However, in view of the subsequent affidavit, better sense having prevailed, we would not like to continue these proceedings further and, thus, close the contempt proceedings with a word of caution for the contemnor to be more careful in future."
Gandhi made the remarks on April 10, the day the apex court had dismissed the Centre's preliminary objections over admissibility of certain documents for supporting the review petitions against the December 14, 2018 verdict in the Rafale case.
Gandhi, who was then the Congress Party president, had told the bench that he has already tendered unconditional apology for wrongly attributing his remarks to the apex court.
In its judgement, the top court noted, "The Supreme Court was also attributed to having held in consonance with what his discourse was, i.e., that the Prime Minister of India stole money from the Air Force and gave it to Mr Anil Ambani and that the Supreme Court had admitted that Mr Modi had indulged in corruption. It was stated that the Supreme Court had said that the chowkidar is a thief."
The bench noted that an affidavit was filed by Gandhi in April 2019 in which he had said that comments were made on the basis of a "bona fide belief" and general understanding of the order even though he had no opportunity to see, read or analyse the verdict at that stage.
During the arguments, Lekhi's advocate had submitted that the apology tendered by Gandhi should be rejected and action must be taken against him as per the law.
Gandhi had on May 8 filed an affidavit after he had drawn flak from the court on April 30 over his earlier affidavit in which he had not directly admitted his mistake for incorrectly attributing the contemptuous remark to the top court.
The apex court on April 15 had given a categorical clarification that in its Rafale verdict there was no occasion for it to make a mention of the contemptuous observation that "chowkidar Narendra Modi chor hai" as has been attributed to it by Gandhi.
Gandhi, in his explanation filed earlier in the court, had said his April 10 statement was made in purely political context to counter the "misinformation campaign" being led by senior BJP functionaries as well as the government that the apex court verdict of December 14 last year was a "clean chit" to the Centre regarding all the aspects of Rafale deal.