When Lawmakers Turn Into Breakers, Literally and Metaphorically: SC Rejects Plea to Withdraw Kerala Assembly Ruckus Case

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Staff Writer, TLR

Published on July 14, 2023, 17:41:00


India, high  court, constitution

It was around six years back when what initially looked like a normal Annual Budget Session turned into a full-fledged brawl. Members of the then-opposition took assembly disruptions to a physical level. The means for 'disruptions' included pushing, punching, hurling the Hon'ble Speakers chair from the podium and even deteriorated to primal instincts such as biting!! The Supreme Court rejecting the Kerala Government's plea to withdraw the case has rekindled the discussion on where should one draw the line between parliamentary privilege and criminality.

Parliamentary Privilege

The Kerala Government saw this vandalism as "Parliamentary Privilege". Hence, delving into what constitutes parliamentary privilege seems to be very relevant. Passionate and creative modes of protest are not uncommon in the Indian Parliament or State Legislature; walkouts, noisy disruptions, and even hugging PM Narendra Modi were seen as expressions of dissent. However, delving into what constitutes Parliamentary Privilege and its limits certainly need to be delved into at this point. “Parliamentary privilege is the sum of certain rights enjoyed by each House collectively and by members of each House individually, without which they could not discharge their functions, and which exceed those possessed by other bodies or individuals", says Erskine May, a British Constitutional Theorist.

The privileges for a member of state legislature member include, as per Article 194 of the Indian Constitution, Freedom of speech in Parliament, immunity to a member from any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in the house or any committee thereof, immunity to a person from proceedings in any court in respect of the publication by or under the authority of a house of State of any report, paper, votes or proceedings. Courts are prohibited from inquiring into the validity of any proceedings in Parliament on the ground of any alleged irregularity of procedure.

Apart from the abovementioned privileges, the Civil Procedure Code also grants freedom from arrest and detention of members under civil process during the continuance of the meeting of the House or a committee thereof and forty days before its commencement and forty days after its conclusion. This leaves the lawmakers with a seemingly impenetrable sheath of immunity from the consequences of their actions to a pretty wide extent. The State government saw what Supreme Court defined to be a "charged atmosphere" as a merely parliamentary privilege and “At best, their action will only amount to a breach of privilege or code of conduct for which only the Speaker is empowered to take action", as per their plea to withdraw the case relating to the Assembly vandalism during the 2015 Budget Session.

Kerala Assembly Ruckus: A Closer Look

Although the Supreme Court rejected the plea, which turned out to be a major political backlash for the Left Democratic Front Government in Kerala, delving into events is imperative for us to get a better perspective on the reasoning. Ironically, many then-opposition members of the assembly who caused the ruckus are ministers today, including Mr Sivankutty, who literally walked over MLAs and vandalised the computer screens on the Hon'ble speaker's table; Mr Sivankutty turns out to be the current Minister for Education.

The then opposition took their efforts to obstruct the budget presentation to an ever. Hence, the wilder extent and the open vandalism and thuggery involved destroying electronic equipment, throwing the Speaker's chair off the dais, verbal and physical fights, blocking off the door to the Assembly to block the Finance Minister's entry and other forms of unruly behaviour, far from what is expected from Members of Legislative Assembly. The Ruling Alliance's retaliation, too, had similar forms of unruly behaviour. Now, in an embarrassing setback to Kerala's ruling government, the Supreme Court has come down heavily on the said incident and has declined the government's plea.

Supreme Court Rejects Plea To Withdraw Case

The Supreme Court bench, comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah, threw out Kerala's petition to withdraw the case, terming the Assembly vandalism as parliamentary privilege. The plea tried to weaken the case by arguing the FIR was wrong and that a crime cannot be registered without the sanction of the speaker since the Assembly was in session. The High Court and the Trial Court had dismissed the plea already. The High Court dismissed the plea seeking withdrawal of the case, stating that the Assembly ruckus cannot be brought under the ambit of members' privilege and was not “Acts done in furtherance of the free functioning of the house.” While dismissing the plea, Justice Chandrachud stated that “Privileges and immunity are not a gateway to claim exemption from criminal law and that would be a betrayal to the citizens, and here, the entire withdrawal application was filed on a misconception of Article 194 of the Constitution”. The Thiruvananthapuram Chief Judicial Magistrate Court had rejected the government's plea and had directed the accused to be present before the court on October 15.

The LDF has been trying to withdraw this case, but the High Court has also not agreed. The Supreme Court, too, did not agree to the State's contention citing that one can disrupt, but you cannot destroy things inside the state legislative assembly and then come out and say that we have the privilege of MLAs.

Bottom Line

The ironic endnote to these events is that Jose K Mani, the son of the then-Finance Minister K.M Mani, who the Left Front members were so keen on obstructing and attacking to prevent his budget speech, had eventually allied the party he inherited from his father with the Left camp in the 2021 Assembly elections and has also tasted a fair amount of success in winning seats. However, this case and the current outcome has turned out to be a shameful reminder of how "Parliamentary Privilege" might get severely misused to an extent to which physical violence unravels between members elected to discuss, debate, legislate and affect the progress of the electorates they represent. Furthermore, it would only take reasonable prudence to understand how the perpetrators of this vandalism have overstretched the definition of the Constitutional Right of Parliamentary Privilege.