Lawmakers must be held accountable if they disrupt Parliament or assemblies
The violence in the Tamil Nadu assembly calls for an amendment to the rules and procedure of Parliament and legislatures, empowering the Speaker to deal sternly with incidents that are in blatant violation of law. He should be allowed to deal with such crimes and hand out punishmentopinion Updated: Feb 20, 2017 21:44 IST
Scenes of violence inside the Tamil Nadu assembly on Saturday were not only appalling , but also dented the image and utility of an institution that represents the very essence of democracy in our country.
The house of elected representatives — Parliament or assembly — is a law-making body where the government is answerable and the Opposition gets an opportunity to challenge or question it.
The Constitution provides privileges to lawmakers to speak fearlessly on issues concerning the public. Articles 105 and 194 grant immunity to the people’s representatives with respect to their vote or speech inside the House. This free speech is without risk and fear of prosecution.
Scenes of violence in assemblies are not uncommon. Three decades ago Tamil Nadu saw similar scenes to the ones witnessed recently. In 2009, the Andhra Pradesh assembly saw a brawl when 46 MLAs including N Chandrababu Naidu refused to leave the House after their suspension. Parliament witnessed an ugly scene in 2014 when pepper spray, broken glass, uprooted microphones and brawls converted the Lok Sabha into a battlefield.
In such riotous situations, MLAs often damage public property like tables, chairs and microphones in the House. Such conduct outside the precincts of Parliament or assembly would invite criminal prosecution against the lawmakers.
However, offending legislators get off scot-free because of the protection the Constitution guarantees them.
Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan says the immunity was meant for good behaviour, to confer unrestricted freedom of speech and expression within the House. “Unfortunately, it now covers the bad behaviour of legislators,” he said. Should such disgraceful acts on the floor be immune from criminal prosecution?
Damage to public property is a punishable offence under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 (PDPP) with a jail term of five years and a fine. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) is applicable to crime within the territorial limits of the country.
The pertinent question is whether the IPC and PDPP should become non-operative for criminal acts on the floor of the House. Only the Speaker of the House has the prerogative of taking action against erring members by a motion — voted or moved out. But, the procedure is hardly resorted to.
A Speaker enjoys unlimited powers to either suspend or expel a member for a period. Suspension can either be for a particular debate or a day, while expulsion can be for a session. The Speaker usually treads a safer path which is to adjourn the House to stop the disruption.
However, the violence in the Tamil Nadu assembly calls for an amendment to the rules and procedure of Parliament and legislatures, empowering the Speaker to deal sternly with incidents that are in blatant violation of the law. He should be allowed to deal with such crimes and hand out severe punishment for wasting the taxpayer’s money and reducing the proceedings of the assembly to a farce or worse.
Dhavan says the problem arises when a Speaker — usually from the ruling party — becomes partisan. “A Speaker has extraordinary powers and also has a voting right. He should know the art of holding a session.”
He agrees that unruly behaviour by lawmakers should invite criminal action but is also nervous about giving unbridled powers to any Speaker.
Going by the ability of the misuse of abuse of the law for political purposes, the time has also come for the codification of privileges (immunity) and powers of the Speaker to deal with breach of privilege and contempt of the House.