Parliament is the repository of the voice of 1.5 billion Indian citizens who send 543 MPs to ask inconvenient questions to an inconvenienced government. This may be why one such question by Rajya Sabha MP K C Venugopal to the minister of external affairs asking if NRIs in foreign countries were sent back from the airports while a few were allegedly requested by the authorities to stop helping the farmers’ agitation, was dropped for the day. This question was provisionally admitted, before being dropped from the list of questions finalised for December 2, according to a news report in the Indian Express.
The nuanced reply which would have been given to such a sensitive question would have generated editorials in the national dailies and also debates on TV news channels which may have been why it was dropped. Laypersons do not know that even the Supreme Court will not entertain any petitions challenging the procedures adopted by Parliament or the state assemblies which are supreme in their own sphere.
This lakshman rekha has been iterated by the Supreme Court time-and-again to ensure there is no clash between those whom we elect who may allegedly indirectly select judges to the Constitutional courts despite this attempt being struck down in 2015 in the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act case, which invalidated the 99th Constitutional amendment. This exercise has now fructified into academic fulminations on judicial independence which is an intangible utopianism.
Privileges of Parliament and the state assemblies are anachronistically linked to the House of Commons in the UK even after 71 years of Independence. Parliament will not enumerate its privileges which will then be specific and subject to the fundamental rights of citizens. This came up in the 1958 Searchlight case which was widely publicised after this Bihar-based newspaper published expunged portions of a speech alleging corruption of the then Bihar chief minister. The Supreme Court rejected the argument that the editor’s right to free speech could be contained only under eight reasonable restrictions under Article 19 (2).
Seven years later, Keshav Singh’s case created a sensation because this was the only case where 28 judges of the Allahabad high court sat together to stay a process issued against two of their brother judges for staying a warrant issued against a politician, Keshav Singh. He had published a defamatory pamphlet against an MLA of the UP Assembly and was jailed. After a Presidential reference was made to the Supreme Court to break the confrontation between the legislature and the judiciary, the erudite Supreme Court judges opined each state organ was supreme in its own sphere. To simplify, parliamentary privileges will continue to remain uncodified until those whom we elect decide to enumerate them.
This may indirectly be why despite emails being sent on November 23, Venugopal’s question did not find mention in the list of finally admitted questions cleared by the ministry on November 26. An aggrieved Venugopal, told the Indian Express he was only orally informed about his question being dropped. “This is a dictatorial way of functioning,” he alleged. This list of finally admitted questions would never have embarrassed the government.
Right to Information curtailed
Ironically, the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), read together with Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution and Keshav Singh’s case preclude the Supreme Court or any of the 25 high courts from affording relief to any aggrieved MP or MLA because this would amount to encroaching on the domain of the legislature which the Supreme Court has prohibited. So, the right to information of the people which is exercised through our elected MPs in the Lok Sabha or through 12 selected MPs in the Rajya Sabha, including Ranjan Gogoi, will remain curtailed.
This is another reason why the three contentious farm laws which were passed and then repealed without a debate cannot be questioned in the courts because of the latter’s own self-regulation. The Opposition demand for a debate on the repeal was thwarted because the Lok Sabha repealed these three laws within four minutes, despite vociferous demands for a debate. And in the Rajya Sabha, it was passed minutes after resumption of the post-lunch session.
The government rejected the opposition demand for a debate on these repealed laws, including the fact that the demand for a statutory guarantee of the minimum support price has never been addressed. Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury alleged the house was being taken for a ride by the government.
Raising a ruckus only option
What we forget is that like the four Supreme Court judges who had no choice but to take their grievances to the people on January 12, 2018, sometimes at least, the Opposition may have no choice but to boycott the proceedings or raise a ruckus which violates protocol and procedure regulated by those who wield power. For, procedure is regulated by those in power to overpower those who have lost power and hope to regain it.
Nobody can approve of the disruptive tactics of the 12 Rajya Sabha MPs who were suspended by Vice Pesident M Venkaiah Naidu who is himself a lawyer and well-versed in the procedure of the house. Naidu ranks above the Chief Justice of India (CJI) in the Table of Precedence because the Speaker of the Lok Sabha stands on equal footing with the CJI. The courts cannot interfere with Naidu’s ruling expelling the 12 MPs from the Rajya Sabha for alleged disruptive behaviour. That would directly infringe the privileges of Parliament which the Supreme Court has prohibited.
Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmer Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar has replied to a question in Parliament that the government has no data on how many farmers died during their agitation for repeal of the laws. But the Punjab government has the data of 220 farmers or farm labourers who died during this period. After the repeal of the contentious laws, their right to life remains a chimera.
Laws are often made by those in power to overpower those whom power eludes. And they lose their right to life while protesting against unjust laws.
The writer holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay high court