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FPJ Edit: SC underlines that legislators' privileges are to serve people, not a licence to take the law into their own hands

02:04 AM Jul 30, 2021 | FPJ Editorial

Legislators in India enjoy enormous privileges. This is to enable them to perform their duties in a free, fair and fearless manner. By no stretch of the imagination can these privileges be considered a licence to take the law into their own hands. This is the sum and substance of the Supreme Court ruling turning down the special leave application filed by the Kerala government to prevent the prosecution of a minister, an MLA and four former MLAs.

The incident happened in 2015 when Education Minister V Sivankutty, CPM MLA K T Jaleel and four others were adorning the opposition benches. The opposition had declared that it would not allow the then finance minister, the late KM Mani, to present the budget as he was “corrupt”. Curiously, the party headed by Mani’s son is now a part of the LDF.

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Since the opposition MLAs could not prevent the presentation of the budget, they resorted to violence. The legislators destroyed the public address system, threw out the Speaker’s chair and behaved in an uncouth, uncivilised manner in the full glare of publicity. The scenes of violence beamed into the drawing rooms of millions of people the world over by television channels marked the greatest fall in the standards of democratic functioning.

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It was almost unbelievable that persons elected by the people and sworn in as MLAs with a commitment to uphold the Constitution at all times would behave like rowdies. One of the MLAs who took the lead in the violence became the Speaker, following the defeat of the Oommen Chandy government.

The UDF government had at that time filed criminal cases against the legislators for vandalism and destruction of property worth Rs 2.5 lakh. Following the assumption of power by Pinarayi Vijayan in 2016, the government had been doing everything possible to withdraw the cases. To be fair to the then Leader of Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala, he had been doing everything possible to frustrate the government’s attempt to whitewash the MLAs’ deeds.

The government suffered a setback when the chief judicial magistrate of Thiruvananthapuram did not grant the government the permission to withdraw the case. A sensible government would have read the writing on the wall and not pursued the ill-advised move.

Instead, it went to the high court, making arguments that would not stand judicial scrutiny. In its verdict on March 12 this year, the court said the Constitution did not give the legislators impunity from criminal proceedings. It should have been a warning to the LDF government that it was futile to challenge the HC verdict. Yet, at great cost to the state exchequer, it filed the petition.

Anyone with some common sense could have sensed what kind of verdict Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah would give in the given situation. The court underlined the point that the legislators are given privileges not to indulge in criminal activities within or without the House.

True, it is the Speaker who decides how the proceedings of the House are conducted. Nonetheless, if an MLA commits a criminal act in the House like destroying property, misbehaving with women MLAs and manhandles another person, he cannot claim the same as a legislative privilege. In other words, if an MLA commits murder in the House, how can he claim to have immunity from arrest and trial?

While laying down the principles of conduct by the legislators, the apex court has left the case to be heard and settled by the chief judicial magistrate. In other words, the minister, the MLA and the ex-MLAs have to face trial and convince the magistrate that whatever they did was a spontaneous reaction and was not pre-planned. It is up to the court to decide whether they should be punished with a jail term or asked to compensate the government for the loss they caused.

Ethics expects the minister to quit his post. True, under the Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence that India follows, a person is considered innocent until he is proved guilty. The minister can also claim to be innocent because no court has so far found him guilty. However, this is tantamount to stretching the argument too far. As an accused, the minister will have to appear before a magistrate in the box reserved for the accused and subject himself to questioning by the prosecution. A better step would be to step down, face the trial and return to ministership if the court absolves him of the criminal charges. It is never too late to establish the best democratic traditions.

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