‘Not their property’: SC on Kerala appeal to close case against MLAs for clashes
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday said the Kerala government’s decision to drop criminal proceedings against a group of Kerala lawmakers who broke chairs, threw microphones and climbed atop tables in the assembly in March 2015 was “incomprehensible” as any decision in this regard should essentially be based on “public interest”.
“This is not their personal property. It is public property, and they are custodians of it in public trust. It is incomprehensible what is the public interest being pleaded in the case,” the bench of justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah said while hearing the case separate appeals by the Kerala government and the accused MLAs against the Kerala high court’s March 12 order refusing to drop charges against the accused MLAs.
The bench on Thursday reserved its order after hearing all sides.
Kerala education minister V Sivankutty and Left Front lawmaker KT Jaleel are among the lawmakers who face charges in this case. The other four, CK Sadasivan, EP Jayarajan, K Ajith and Kunjammadu Master, are former members of the legislative assembly (MLAs).
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Back in 2015, the CPM-led Left Democratic Front lawmakers had refused to let then finance minister KM Mani present the budget and demanded that he step down on corruption charges. They were charged under sections 447 (criminal trespass) and 427 (causing mischief) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3(1) of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 which is punishable with a maximum sentence of five years.
The Kerala Police registered a first information report and submitted a report to the chief judicial magistrate, Thiruvananthapuram. After the trial court took cognizance of the charges, in 2019, the Left Front government sought withdrawal of cases through the public prosecutor. When the judge didn’t accept the prosecution request, the case went to the high court which also declined to close the case.
Treating the effort to close the case as a serious issue where a state government was seen defending the actions by lawmakers accused of criminal trespass, mischief, and destruction of public property, a bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah said, “We have to consider if the withdrawal of prosecution request (filed by the public prosecutor) was in the public interest where MLAs have thrown furniture and desecrated the sanctum sanctorum of the House.”
On July 5, when the Supreme Court admitted the appeals and decided to hear the case, the bench had said that such acts of indiscipline cannot be condoned as legislative bodies are sentinels of democracy where members elected as people’s representatives have to ensure some modicum of decorum.
Appearing for the state, senior lawyer Ranjit Kumar on Thursday told the court that the action fell squarely within the domain of the House over which the court cannot adjudicate. Kumar stated that the government of the day felt that the registration of the case raised a political issue as even the ruling party members were involved in the ruckus. He added that the right to protest was recognised to be a right within the freedom of speech and expression that the legislators are entitled to.
The bench presented Kumar with a hypothetical situation.
“We do not doubt your freedom of speech in the House. But suppose an MLA empties a revolver in the assembly. Will you still say that the House is supreme,” the judges said. Even in the courtroom, there are heated arguments but that will not justify the destruction of public property, the bench added. At one point, the court even reminded Kumar that he was representing the state government and not defending the accused.
Senior advocate Jaideep Gupta, who appeared for the accused MLAs, cited the public prosecutor’s letter seeking closure of the case due to lack of evidence. The bench, however, pointed out that this was not a case where there is no evidence as the video recording of the proceedings was available. The court said the magistrate’s court while dealing with a request for dropping prosecution, does not act as a post office and must apply its mind.
Senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani who appeared for a lawyer who opposed the withdrawal of prosecution told the court that property worth ₹2.2 lakh was destroyed by the accused MLAs and privileges of the legislature could not extend to acts involving destruction of public property.
The Kerala government earlier argued before the high court that the FIR against the MLAs was filed without prior sanction of the Speaker of the House. Jethmalani, along with advocate MR Ramesh Babu, said that the question of sanction will not arise at the time of registration of FIR but at the time of filing the charge sheet. Moreover, Babu pointed out that there was nothing on record to show that the public prosecutor had applied to the Speaker for sanction in this case before seeking withdrawal of prosecution.