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A trophy to remember

By K. Ramachandran

S. Balasubramanian

CHENNAI Nov. 15. A picture frame featuring the scanned image of a cheque, two 500 rupee notes and two paper cuttings hangs like a trophy on a wall behind the Vikatan group Editor S. Balasubramanian's chair. It is testimony to an important legal victory of 1994 — which gains relevance in the midst of a fresh debate over the privileges of legislative bodies in India, the `sky-high' powers sometimes claimed for them, and the urgent need to codify them.

The cheque for Rs.1,000 represents the amount awarded to the veteran journalist by a Full Bench of the Madras High Court — "as a notional or token compensation by way of `monetary amends' to the breach of the fundamental rights of the petitioner in vindication of his stand."

Mr. Balasubramanian is the son of S.S. Vasan, the celebrated journalist, freedom fighter and film magnate — the proprietor of Gemini Studios and of the Tamil weekly, Ananda Vikatan, founded in 1926 and acquired by him in 1928.

The controversy arose over a cartoon Ananda Vikatan published in its issue of March 29, 1987. The cartoon showed two characters in conversation in which the following question and answer figured: Q: "Of the two persons on stage, who is the MLA and who is the Minister?" A: "The person who looks like a pickpocket is the MLA and the person who looks like a masked dacoit is the Minister." Before long, things took a bizarre turn with a Speaker claiming `sky-high powers' going over the top.

"My main point," recalls the Editor about the writ petition he moved, "was that the Speaker by himself or suo motu can go only to the Privileges Committee. But in this case, a member raised an issue and the Speaker himself passed judgment. The matter did not go to the Privileges Committee. He passed the judgment even before asking me or giving a chance to me to defend myself. This is what I challenged ... that there was a serious violation. My personal rights were violated and I was given no chance to explain, except that I was asked to give an apology on the front page."

A picture frame containing the scanned image of a cheque given by the Government as per the Madras High Court order hangs on the wall of the Ananda Vikatan group Editor, S. Balasubramanian's room. The frame also contains the money he realised by encashing the cheque, as well as two newspaper cuttings on the compensation awarded to him. — Photos: K. Pichumani

The Speaker called for an apology. The Editor responded with a lengthy explanation to the effect that the cartoon was a mere joke and not meant to offend any particular individual or party. On April 4, 1987, the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution sentencing Mr. Balasubramanian to three months rigorous imprisonment for breach of privilege of the House. As soon as the resolution was carried, the Speaker issued an arrest warrant against the Editor, who was taken into custody and imprisoned. L'affaire Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly became a national issue. Two days later the Editor was released through the intervention of Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran.

"After the release," recalls Mr. Balasubramanian, "we filed the writ petition raising the question whether the Speaker himself could pass the order that seriously violated my personal fundamental rights ... I said this was a totally arbitrary and illegal decision of the Speaker. We had sought compensation though I did not want to fix any quantum. Nor was I inclined to calculate the loss of work hours or quantify the loss of prestige."

In the Full Bench judgment (1994-Writ L.R. 638), the Madras High Court held that the imposition of the sentence was unconstitutional and void in law. It said, basing itself on several decisions of the Supreme Court:

"... the Constitution reigns supreme and the rights, powers and privileges of the various limbs of the State are subject to the provisions contained in the Constitution, the basic and fundamental law ... the final authority to state the meaning of the Constitution and to settle constitutional controversies exclusively belongs to the Supreme Court and the High Courts ... the Legislatures in India have to function within the limits prescribed by the material and relevant provisions of the Constitution of India and adjudication of any dispute as to whether legislative authority has been exceeded or fundamental rights have been contravened is solely and exclusively left to the Judicature of this country and, therefore, inevitably the decision about the construction of Article 194 (3) of the Constitution, the privileges, powers and immunities claimed or action taken in vindication thereof cannot be said to be in the exclusive domain or of the sole arbitral or absolute discretion of the House of Legislature.

"Of course, the Courts having regard to their own self-imposed limits would honour the sentiments, particularly keeping in view the plenary powers of the Legislature within the constitutionally permitted limits, so long as such action of the Legislature does not result in the negation of the fundamental right secured under the Constitution or the life, liberty, freedom and dignity of the citizen. The all-powerful postures or claims of sky-high powers or suzerain claims of sovereignty or over-Lordism are to be brushed aside as nothing but fossils of the tyrannical and anarchical past and not in keeping tune with the basic and fundamental principle of rule of law, the bedrock of the Constitution or the democratic ideals which are the avowed object of the Republic ushered in by the Constitution of India. The contentions to the contrary have no basis or recognition of law and do not have the merit of acceptance by courts in this country."

The Madras High Court concluded in this judgment that there had been "a gross violation of law as also the principles of natural justice" and of the Editor's fundamental rights under Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution. What is more, after awarding the token compensation, the Court ordered the Chief Secretary of the Government of Tamil Nadu and the Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly to ensure the payment. The Government paid up.

"I could have kept the cheque unused," explains Mr. Balasubramanian, "but I wanted the Government to be poorer by the Rs.1,000. And that is why I have scanned the cheque before encashing it and have also put the money that I got along with the scanned image."

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