Legislatures did not have the power to act against members for their executive action by exercising privileges, the Supreme Court ruled today, quashing the expulsion of former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh from the state Assembly over a land scam.
"If we were to permit the legislature to exercise privileges for acting against Members for their executive acts during previous terms, the courts are likely to be flooded with cases involving political rivalries," a Constitution Bench said, holding the expulsion of 67-year-old Congress leader in 2008 as unconstitutional.
The five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan ruled there was no breach of privilege by Singh but rather the state assembly "exceeded its powers."
It restored the seat of Singh which was declared vacant by the House consequent to his expulsion.
The Court cautioned that if the legislature was allowed to expel members for their executive actions, then with every change of government, political rivals would be expelled by the ruling party on flimsy grounds frustrating parliamentary democracy.
"It is our considered view that the Punjab Vidhan Sabha exceeded its powers by expelling the appellant (Singh) on the ground of breach of privilege when there existed none. The allegedly improper exemption of land was an executive act attributable to the appellant and it did not distort, obstruct or threaten the integrity of legislative proceedings in any manner.
"Hence, the exercise of legislative privileges under Article 194 (3) of the Constitution was not proper in the present case," the bench, also comprising Justices R V Raveendran, P Sathasivam, J M Panchal and R M Lodha, said in an 89-page judgment.
Singh was expelled from the assembly and his seat declared vacant from the present 13th Assembly on September 3, 2008, for "breach of privilege" after a special committee appointed by the House held him guilty for the alleged irregularities that took place in Amritsar when he was the Chief Minister of Punjab.
The scam relates to grant of exemption on 32.5 acres of land in a prime area by Singh to certain land developers allegedly in violation of rules.
"One can conceive that whenever there is a change of regime, the fresh incumbents would readily fall back on the device of legislative privileges to expel political opponents as well as dissidents. Such a scenario would frustrate some of the basic objectives of a Parliamentary democracy," Justice Balakrishnan writing the judgement said.
The apex court said the ideal course for the Assembly was to set the criminal law in motion rather than exercising the "breach of privilege" powers conferred to the State Assemblies under Article 194.
"The proper course of action on part of the state government should have been to move the criminal law machinery with the filing of a complaint followed by an investigation as contemplated under the Code of Criminal Procedure," the apex court said.