House panels told not to pick sub-judice issues

Published on Aug 25, 2020 11:49 PM IST
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ByDeeksha Bharadwaj

New Delhi: Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla has written to the chairpersons of all parliamentary panels to select subjects following Parliamentary rules and conventions, which includes not taking up subjects that are pending examination by courts.

“The Committees should give due consideration to rule 270 and other necessary rules and directions while selecting subjects for examination,” Birla said in a letter, which accessed by the Hindustan Times. “In addition, I would like to point out that as per convention, the Committees do not take those subjects for examination where the issue is pending in the Courts.”

According to rule 270, ‘a Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, provided that if any question arises whether the evidence of a person or the production of a document is relevant for the purposes of the Committee, the question shall be referred to the Speaker whose decision shall be final’.

Moreover, the rule adds that the Government may decline to produce a document on the ground that its disclosure would be prejudicial to the safety or interest of the state.

The Speaker’s letter comes barely a week before the Information and Technology Panel is slated to discuss two contentious topics, the issue of Internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir on September 1 and Facebook’s testimony over alleged bias towards the ruling party.

The Supreme Court is still considering the matter of Internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir. While the next hearing has not with the next hearing been notified, on August 11, the Centre had told the SC that they will be restore 4G in the newly formed Union territory in a staggered manner after August 15.

The Facebook controversy was spotlighted by the Wall Street Journal, which reported that Facebook India intervened in content moderation processes to ensure hate speeches by a BJP leader were not taken down – a claim the company has since denied. Facebook India on Friday evening reiterated it acts in an unbiased manner. BJP MP Nishikant Dubey has contested panel chair Shashi Tharoor’s decision to ask Facebook to appear before the committee and has asked the Speaker for his removal.

Hindustan Times reached out Congress MP Shashi Tharoor for a response but did not receive one till press time.

Parliamentary standing committees and departmentally related standing committees are smaller units of MPs from both houses and across political parties. As extensions of the Parliament, the rules that govern the House, apply to the Committees. The committees function all year round, under the overall aegis of the Speaker. The agenda of the committees is pre-approved by the Speaker. At present, there are 54 Parliamentary Committees, of which 24 are departmentally related. Of the 24 departmentally related committees, 17 fall under the Lok Sabha and seven are under the Rajya Sabha.

According to the agenda of the IT Panel, issued on August 20 and seen by Hindustan Times, ‘oral evidence of the representatives of the Ministry of Communications (Department of Telecommunications), Ministry of Home Affairs and the representatives of the state of Bihar, UT f Jammu and Kashmir and the UT of NCT of Delhi’ is expected on the ‘suspension’ of Internet/Telecom services and its impact’. It has also listed hearing the views of the ‘representatives of Facebook on ‘Safeguarding Citizens’ rights’.

The issue of ‘sub-judice’ matters being discussed in the house, say experts, has been around for a while now. According to former Lok Sabha secretary general PDT Achary, the rule of sub judice is not absolute.

“There have been many times when the issues has been before the court and examined by the House at the same time,” Achary told Hindustan Times. “It has been done in the past.”

Achary added that there is a rule that matters that are sub judice should not be discussed does exist, however, the Parliament also has a rule of suspension that allows for a departure in case a topic of national importance has to be discussed.

“The sub judice is more of a self-imposed restriction,” said Achary. “The Committee can do so under the direction of the Speaker and since the agenda is pre-approved by the Speaker, they don’t need to seek permission again. Not every paper has to go to the Speaker.”

Former secretary general of the Rajya Sabha Shamsher Sheriff said that since the Parliamentary committees are extension of the house, the Speaker has only drawn the attention of chairpersons to the particular issue.

The former official drew the attention to the Presiding Officers meet held in New Delhi in 1967 that was appointed to indicate guidelines as to what could be treated as sub judice.

“If you go by that, then quite naturally, it is left to the discretion of the chairpersons of the committees, depending on the facts of each case and its specificities, to determining whether the matter can be discussed or not

“Members are left in the light of all this to show restraint when discussing such matters, only facts can be asked for but a discussion that may be prejudicial to the proceedings of the court has to be avoided,” he added.

According to the Committe of the presiding officers, as mentioned in the Rajya Sabha General rules of procedure, (Rajya Sabha at Work) available on the Rajya Sabha website, “freedom of speech is a primary right whereas rule of sub judice is a self-imposed restriction. So where need be, the latter must give way to the former.” It says that as a sovereign body, the Parliament has a right to legislate on any matter.

“Rule of sub judice has no application in privilege matters. Rule of sub judice does not ordinarily apply to legislation. Rule of sub judice applies only in regard to the specific issues before a court. The entire gamut of the matter is not precluded,” it adds.

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