The Supreme Court on Wednesday held that legislators who indulge in vandalism and general mayhem cannot claim parliamentary privilege and immunity from criminal prosecution while dismissing appeals by Kerala government and ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) to withdraw a criminal case against their leaders who destroyed public property and disrupted a Budget speech on the State Assembly floor in 2015.
“Parliamentary privileges and immunities are not ‘gateways’ for legislators to claim exception from the law of the land, especially criminal law,” a Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah observed in a judgment.
Vandalism on the Assembly floor could not be equated with the right to protest by Opposition legislators. Destruction of public property could not be equated with the exercise of freedom of speech.
Legislators should act within the parameters of the public trust imposed on them to do their duty. They had taken office swearing true allegiance to the Constitution. They had to uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India and had to perform the duty imposed on them by the people who elected them, it said.
It was definitely not for them to “betray the trust of the people” who elected them as law makers by engaging in wanton destruction of public property in the Assembly and then claim privilege and immunity from the very process of law. That was like missing the woods for the trees, the Supreme Court noted. Engaging in acts of violence inside the Assembly could hardly be in the “larger public interest” or be considered as “legitimate” protests, as claimed by the State government and the accused leaders.
The Chief Judicial Magistrate, Thiruvananthapuram, was justified in declining the Public Prosecutor's application to withdraw the criminal case against the accused LDF leaders, one of them being the current State Education Minister, V. Sivankutty. The Supreme Court agreed with the Magistrate’s view that the application for withdrawal was not made in good faith. Criminal law must take its normal course, the court ordered.
The State government and the accused LDF leaders, who were in the Opposition in 2015, had claimed parliamentary privilege, arguing that the incident occurred inside the Assembly hall. They had claimed immunity from criminal prosecution. They had argued that the prior sanction of the Speaker was necessary before the registration of an FIR by the police.
The televised images from the day of the incident show legislators come to blows on the House floor and hurl chairs, computers and other public property soon after Finance Minister K.M. Mani began his budget speech during the UDF government’s tenure. The MLAs are facing charges of criminal trespass, mischief and destruction of public property.
“MLAs only have parliamentary privileges and immunities essential for doing their duty,” Justice Chandrachud responded. The court said breaking chairs and indulging in destruction of public property on the Assembly floor could not be said to be an ‘essential function’.
“MLAs do not stand above the general application of law,” Justice Chandrachud observed in the judgment.
The Supreme Court had reserved its judgment in the case on July 15. The State and the accused persons had appealed against a High Court order which confirmed the Magistrate’s decision to refuse the Prosecutor permission to withdraw the criminal case.
The Supreme Court had consistently taken a strong prima facie view against the conduct of the MLAs. Justice Chandrachud had said these legislators ought to face trial or there would be “absolutely no deterrent to this kind of behaviour”.
The Public Prosecutor’s application to withdraw the cases was dismissed by the Thiruvananthapuram Chief Judicial Magistrate on September 22, last year. The Magistrate had concluded that the request was made “without good faith and under external influence”. The High Court had confirmed the Magistrate’s decision in March.