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This article is authored by Akash Krishnan, a law student from ICFAI Law School, Hyderabad. It discusses in detail the concept of contempt of the Parliament House, punishments for contempt and recent cases of contempt of the Parliament House. 

Introduction

Parliamentary privilege can be defined as the rights and immunities that are provided to the members of Parliament and the Parliament itself. The objective behind granting these privileges is to allow the members of the Parliament to perform their functions free from any external barriers/constraints. The Parliament has the authority to determine the extent of these rights and immunities and legislate in this regard. However, no legislation has been passed by the Parliament wherein the extent of these privileges has been provided.

A breach of privilege occurs when any person commits an act that is in violation of the privileges granted to the members of parliament or the Parliament itself. This includes acts of publishing news items/speeches without the consent of the house, obstruction of the proceedings of the house etc. When such a breach of privilege occurs, it is called contempt of the Parliament House and the person who is charged with the contempt of the Parliament House can be punished with imprisonment or fine or can be given a warning against future contempt.

Before we delve into the recent cases of contempt, let us try and understand the law revolving around contempt of the Parliament House in India.

Contempt of the Parliament House

A contempt of the Parliament House can be defined as any act that:

  1. Causes an obstruction in the conduct of proceedings of the House.
  2. Causes an obstruction in the performance of functions by any officer or member of the House.
  3. Any other act that directly or indirectly has such an effect.

Proceedings against contempt are very important because the nation cannot function properly if the Parliament or its members/officers are unable to perform their duties in an efficient manner.

Constitutional provisions

The Constitution of India has several provisions that deal with the privileges granted to the Parliament and its members. Some of the provisions have been enumerated below:

Powers and privileges of the Parliament and its members

Article 105 of the Constitution enlists multiple powers/privileges that are vested in the Parliament and its members. These powers/privileges include:

  1. Freedom of speech in Parliament.
  2. Immunity from any proceedings in any court w.r.t anything said or any vote given by the member in the Parliament.
  3. Immunity from any proceedings in any court against the publication of any report, votes, paper etc. by or under the authority of the Parliament.

In Tej Kiran Jain vs. N. Sanjiva Reddy (1970), the Supreme Court observed that anything and everything said by a member of the Parliament during the course of the business of the Parliament is protected and the member is immune from any action regarding the same by any court in the country. In Surendra Mohanty v. Nabakrishna Choudhury (1958), the Orissa High Court had held that even if the statement made by the member of Parliament amounts to contempt of court, no action can be initiated against the same. 

Inquiry into proceedings of the Parliament

Under Article 122 of the Constitution, a restriction is placed on the powers of the judiciary to inquire into the proceedings of the Parliament. The restrictions are as follows:

  1. Inquiry into the validity of the proceedings of the Parliament on the ground of irregularity in the conduct of the proceedings, i.e., the procedure of the Parliamentary proceedings.
  2. Inquiry into the person or officer authorised to regulate the conduct of business and procedure of the Parliamentary proceedings can.

Publication of the Parliamentary proceedings

Article 361A of the Constitution states that any person can publish the proceedings of the Parliament subject to such publication being a true report of the proceedings made without any malice. However, publication of any secret proceedings of the Parliament or any State Legislature is prohibited.

Code of Civil Procedure, 1908

Section 135A of the CPC provides protection to the members of the Parliament and State Legislatures against arrest and detention in the following circumstances:

  1. During the continuance of proceedings in the Parliament or State Legislature.
  2. During the continuance of proceedings of any Committee of the Parliament or State Legislature.
  3. 40 days before or after a joint sitting of both the Houses of Parliament or the State Legislative Assembly and the State Legislative Council.

In K. Anandan Nambiar vs. Chief Secretary, Government of Madras (1966), the Supreme Court held that if a member of the Parliament was arrested under the provisions of the Preventive Detention Act 1950, the right to attend the proceedings and cast a vote cannot be claimed by the member. 

Breach of privilege

A breach of privilege can be defined as any act that is in violation of the privileges vested in the member of the Parliament or the Parliament itself. Some of the examples of breach of privilege have been discussed below:

Withholding communications from a member in custody

In the case of In re. K. Anandan Nambiar vs. Unknown (1951), the Madras High Court observed that an act of withholding communication from any member of Parliament who is under arrest or detention to the Secretary-General, Speaker or Chairman of a legislative body would constitute a breach of privilege and therefore would amount to be a contempt of the Parliament house.

Inputting motives to members

In Ram Gopal Gupta’s case, the Committee of Privileges observed that there was an attempt to input motives in the minds of the members of the Parliament through a letter issued to that effect. Due to the points raised in this letter, multiple issues and questions were raised in Parliament. In light of the same, the Committee of Privileges held that the actions of Mr. Ram Gopal constituted a breach of privilege and therefore would amount to a contempt of the Parliament House.

Libel and slander

In Hindustan Times Case, several statements were made in the editorial segment of the Hindustan Times. These statements cast reflections on the character of the members of Parliament and the procedure of the Parliament. The Committee of Privileges observed that if any person by way of speech or print media issues defamatory marks against any member of the Parliament or the Parliament itself, it would constitute a breach of privilege and therefore would amount to contempt of the Parliament house. The Committee herein held that the statements published by Hindustan Times constituted contempt of the Parliament house but did not take any action because of an apology tendered by the Editor of the newspaper.

In another case, Jadeed Markaz, a weekly newspaper, had published derogatory statements regarding the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. The Committee of Privileges observed that the statements used by the editor of the newspaper crossed the limits of decency and were solely aimed at gaining cheap publicity. In light of the same, the Committee held that the actions of the editor constituted a breach of privilege and therefore would amount to a contempt of the Parliament House. 

Assault on members of the Parliament

If any person obstructs, molests or assaults any member of the Parliament during the conduct of business in the Parliament, the same constitutes a breach of privilege and therefore would amount to contempt of the Parliament House.

In a complaint of breach of privilege, a member of the Rajya Sabha alleged that he was assaulted by some policemen. The Committee of Privileges while examining the said compliant held that there was no breach of privilege on two grounds, firstly, that the assault occurred in a private space and not inside the Parliament during the conduct of the business of the House, and secondly, the assault did not happen when the member was performing his duties as a representative of the people in the Upper House of the Parliament.

Disturbances from visitor’s gallery

If any person who is attending the session of the House as a visitor performs any act by which the proceedings of the House are disrupted, the same constitutes a breach of privilege and therefore would amount to contempt of the Parliament House.

In an incident that occurred on 18th March 1982, 14 people from the visitor’s gallery were taken into custody for shouting slogans and disrupting the proceedings of the House. This act was deemed as contempt of the Parliament House and all the 14 people were punished with simple imprisonment. In another incident, a visitor from the visitor’s gallery was punished with simple imprisonment for shouting slogans and throwing chappals on the floor of the House.

Making a misleading statement in the House

If a member of the House makes a misleading statement deliberately then the same constitutes a breach of privilege and therefore would amount to a contempt of the Parliament House.

However, if a particular statement, irrespective of whether it is misleading or not, was made by the member based on the information available to the member at that time, then the same would not constitute a breach of privilege or contempt of the Parliament House.

Who can punish for breach of privilege or contempt

In Harendra Nath Barua v. Dev Kanta Barua & Others (1958), the High Court of Assam held that only the concerned House can issue punishment regarding breach of privilege or contempt of that House or its members. This power was called the ‘keystone of parliamentary privilege.’ In Sushanta Kumar Chand v. Speaker, Orissa Legislative Assembly (1973), the Orissa High Court held that the House can impose a punishment of imprisonment for contempt or breach of privilege. It further held that the duration of such imprisonment cannot extend the duration of the session of the House.

In A.M. Paulraj vs. The Speaker, Tamil Nadu (1985), the editor of a Tamil magazine, had published several comments criticising the members of the State Legislative Assembly. The Privileges Committee passed an order for simple imprisonment against the offender for one week. This order was challenged by the offender on the ground of violation of Article 21 of the Constitution. The Madras High Court, while affirming the decision of the Privileges Committee, held that the offender cannot claim a violation of Article 21 because the punishment had been issued in accordance with the procedure established by law. 

Kinds of Punishment that can be imposed by the Houseṣ:

  1. Simple imprisonment for the duration of the session of the House.
  2. Imposition of fine.
  3. Initiation of legal proceedings for prosecution of the offenders.

Recent instances of breach of privilege or contempt of the Parliament House

Date and SubjectIncident
August 19th 2020: Disparaging remarks by BJP MPMr. Shashi Tharoor, the head of the Standing Committee on Information Technology had decided to call a meeting to discuss the alleged misconduct of Facebook. In light of the same, disparaging remarks were made by the BJP MP Nishikant Dubey on Twitter. A breach of privilege notice was issued by Mr. Shashi Tharoor on the ground of harm caused to his reputation through the remarks made by the BJP MP.
February 3rd 2021: Warning issued to Rajya Sabha MPs by the Chairman of Rajya SabhaMr. Venkaiah Naidu, the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, issued a warning to all the members of Rajya Sabha stating that recording the proceedings of the House on mobile phones would be deemed as a breach of privilege and an action for the same may be initiated by him if anyone is found guilty.
February 13th 2021: Breach of privilege notice against Rahul GandhiRahul Gandhi urged his party members and also the members from TMC and DMK to observe a 2-minute silence for mourning the deaths of farmers during the farmer protests. Three BJP members moved a breach of privilege notice against this on the ground that the permission of the Chairman was not taken for the mourn and the behaviour was unparliamentary and it was gross misconduct of procedure.
July 23rd 2021: Breach of privilege motion against the Minister of State for Health Congress alleged that the Minister of State for Health Mrs. Bharati Pravin Pawar misled the Parliament by providing false data regarding Covid-19 related deaths due to oxygen shortage during the second wave. The Minister reportedly stated that there were no Covid-19 related deaths due to oxygen shortage.
July 24th 2021: Misleading remarks on judges’ vacanciesLaw Minister Kiren Rijiju made a statement in the Rajya Sabha that filling up of judges’ vacancies is a continuous process and a time limit cannot be ascertained for the same. This statement was made in response to a question regarding the appointment of judges from the recommendations of the Supreme Court collegium.A CPI(M) MP moved a motion for breach of privilege on the ground that the statement of the law minister was misleading because he failed to mention that out of the 80 recommendations, only 45 were notified for appointments.
August 9th 2021: Not attending Committee meetings amounts to a breach of privilegeMr. Shashi Tharoor, the head of the Standing Committee on Information Technology had scheduled a Committee meeting on 28th July but the meeting could not take place due to lack of quorum. This lack of quorum was the result of multiple BJP MPs not attending the meeting and giving information of the same at the last minute.He alleged that the conduct of the BJP MPs amounts to a breach of privilege and contempt of the Parliament House because it disrupted the proceedings of the Committee and the discussion on the important issue of Pegasus had to be postponed.

Conclusion

When the citizens of the country vote and elect representatives on their behalf, the least they can expect in return is accountability. Breaches of privilege or contempt of the Parliament House are incidents that indicate that the members of the Parliament have time and again failed to maintain the standards of accountability. Making derogatory comments against each other, not attending Committee meetings, disrupting and delaying the Parliamentary proceedings in one way or the other not only indicates a lack of accountability but also the lack of fear against the punishment for offences constituting a breach of privilege or contempt of the Parliament House.

Imposition of small fines, simple imprisonment till the session ends are not punishments that instil fear against violation of the established principles. In most cases, a simple apology is enough to conclude proceedings regarding breach of privilege or contempt of the Parliament House. Therefore, there is a need for stricter punishments to ensure accountability and smooth proceedings in Parliament.

References

  1. https://rajyasabha.nic.in/rsnew/rsat_work/CHAPTER%E2%80%948.pdf 
  2. https://prsindia.org/theprsblog/parliamentary-privilege-faqs 
  3. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/disrupting-parliamentary-proceedings-contempt-of-house-venkaiah-naidu-7517931/ 
  4. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/o2-deaths-cong-moves-breach-of-privilege-motion-against-minister-for-statement-101626952019151.html 
  5. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/cpm-mp-john-brittas-kiren-rijiju-parliament-monsoon-session-7419702/ 

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