Privilege of Legislators

On June 21, acting upon the recommendations of its privilege committees, the Speaker of the Karnataka assembly had ordered the imprisonment of two journalists for a year. The order has drawn widespread criticism and has been labelled as an effort to throttle the media.

Earlier in 2003, the Speaker of Tamil Nadu assembly had ordered the arrest of five journalists for publishing articles that were critical of the then ruling AIADMK government.

What are the provisions in the constitution that protects the privileges of the legislature?

Every year, it is found that dozens of people are summoned before the privileges committees of Parliament and state legislatures on charges of breach of privilege of legislators. However, it is very rare that punitive actions like imprisonment have been ordered as a punishment.

Article 105 of the Constitution is related to the powers, privileges, etc, of members and committees of Parliament while Article 194 protects the privileges and powers of state legislature, their members and committees. These articles strive to protect the freedom of speech of parliamentarians and legislators and insulate them against litigation over matters that occur in the floors of the houses. The provisions help to define the powers, privileges and immunities of a house, its members and committees

What constitutes a breach of privilege?

Though, the constitution of India grants special privileges and powers to parliamentarians and legislators to safeguard their dignity, these powers and privileges have not been clearly laid out anywhere. So, there is no clearly laid out rules that states what constitutes breach of privilege and what punishment it entails.

In case of Karnataka, the privilege committee refers to book titled Practice and Procedure of Parliament written by M N Kaul to define breach of privilege. The book states that speeches and writings about the House or its committees or members can be regarded as breach of privilege and can be punished as these actions tend to obstruct the Houses by diminishing the respect due to them.

What is the criticism of provisions related to breach of privilege?

It is often criticised that the provisions are misused to counter media criticisms. In addition, it is used as a substitute for legal proceedings and undermines the fact that all persons have a right to trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal. The breach of privilege laws violates the basic fair trial guarantees.

What is the procedure in privilege cases?

All state legislatures have privilege committees comprising 10 to 12 legislators as members and a senior politician from the ruling party as its head. The legislators can forward their complaints to the committee. The committee upon receiving the complaint will begin proceedings as per the Criminal Procedure Code. The committee summons the accused and conducts an inquiry. Upon the completion of the inquiry, the committee makes recommendation to the state legislature based on its findings. A debate is usually initiated in the legislature on the tabled report. Based on the assertions of the house, the Speaker of the House defines the punishment.

 Way forward

There is an urgent need for a law codifying the legislative privileges. The law should clearly state penal actions for breach of privilege and procedures that need to be followed. The legislatures must use the power to punish for contempt only in rare cases for protecting the independence of the House and not to silence the critics.