Contempt of the House is a generic term of which breach of privilege is an important part. The former is defined as ‘any act of omission, which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in performing its functions or any member in discharging his duties’.
A breach of privilege, on the other hand, is a ‘wilful disregard of the power and privileges of Parliament either by a member or anyone else’. Simply put, it is an attempt to bring the House into ridicule.
Breach of privilege includes, to paraphrase Constitutional expert D.C. Jain, disregard of freedom of speech and proceedings in Parliament and indignities to proceedings in Parliament or to its members.
Contempt of the House can include speeches or writings that adversely reflect it, points out former Lok Sabha Secretary General S.C. Kashyap. Interestingly, bribing or intimidating an MP also constitutes contempt of the House.
In August 1985, Rajya Sabha member Ghulam Rasool Mattoo assaulted former MP Mohammad Shafi in the Central Hall. Balram Jakhar, then the Lok Sabha Speaker, ruled that Mattoo would have to express regret in the Upper House while his colleague in the Lok Sabha would apologise to the House on behalf of Mattoo and his party. While expressing his regret, Mattoo said he was provoked because Shafi had made derogatory remarks about him.
When English weekly Young India published an article calling the Assam Legislative Assembly ‘shameless’, the Privilege Committee held that the article was derogatory and constituted a breach of privilege. It recommended ‘proper punishment’ for the editor and also that the magazine be deprived of privileges accorded to it by the House.
A question of privilege was raised back in 1960 in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. The first Indian governor general C. Rajagopalachari had reportedly said in a public meeting at Chandigarh that Congress legislators “are such whom any…first class magistrate would round up. They are those without any appreciable means of livelihood.” This was seen as ‘most unparliamentary’ and constituted a breach of privilege. The total strength of Congress legislators in the 301-member Andhra Pradesh Assembly was 232 and the Speaker ruled that there was a prima facie case of breach of privilege. But the Privilege Committee to which the matter was referred held that there was no breach because it could not be proved that Rajagopalachari had, in fact, made the statement attributed to him.
Any member can, with the consent of the Speaker, raise a breach of privilege issue or contempt by giving a notice to the secretary general. The Speaker is also empowered to refer suo moto any issue of privilege or contempt to the Privilege Committee.