Gross breach of privilege but beneath contempt

Somnath Chatterjee, Speaker of the Lok Sabha

[On August 7, 2005, The Pioneer published an article written by Swapan Dasgupta titled "Speaker asks for trouble." On August 12, a Member of the Lok Sabha gave notice of a question of privilege.] When the matter was raised on the floor of the House, I made the following observations: "I am thankful to you for taking up this matter... I feel that there are some people who pay lip service to parliamentary democracy but try their best to denigrate this great institution. We need not take notice of all irresponsible and immature utterances made out of frustration and desperation. I treat all the motivated insinuations with the contempt they deserve and I close the matter."

[Now, on August 18] I wish to give my ruling as follows:

In the impugned article it has been alleged, among other [things], that the present Speaker of the Lok Sabha has extra-territorial loyalty; that he is a committed Speaker; that he is partisan and has no sense of prestige; that he is highhanded in his behaviour and has no sense of fair play.

It is well established that speeches and writings that cast a reflection on the character and impartiality of the Speaker in the discharge of his duty constitute breach of privilege and contempt of the House (Kaul & Shakdher, Practice and Procedure of Parliament (5th Edition), pages 279 - 280). In May's Parliamentary Practice (20th Edition) at page 159, it has been observed that reflections on the character of the Speaker and accusations of partiality in the discharge of his or her duty have been held to constitute breaches of privilege or contempt. At page 235, it has been observed that "reflections upon the character or actions of the Speaker may be punished as breaches of privilege. His action cannot be criticised incidentally in debate or upon any form of proceeding except a substantive motion."

According to me, the position in law is beyond any doubt and to anyone concerned with the parliamentary system it is clear that the impugned article not only reeks of malice but is highly contumacious in its conception and in its contents as it deliberately accuses the Speaker of partiality and reflects on his character and actions as Speaker, which amounts to gross breach of privilege of the Speaker and also of the House.

It has been contended by some Members on the floor of this House that journalists enjoy the freedom of press and that one is entitled to criticise the Speaker. The present Speaker has not claimed any immunity from any bona fide criticism, which no doubt has also to take note of the privileges of this great institution. Freedom of the press, a cherished fundamental right in our country, is subject to reasonable restrictions, as contemplated by the Constitution itself. It cannot and does not comprise deliberately tendentious and motivated attacks on the great institutions of this Republic and their officers and functionaries. Freedom of the press does not also contemplate making reckless allegations, devoid of truth and lacking in bona fides. In the name of exercising freedom of the press, there cannot be trial by the press — in which it plays the role of both accuser and judge. Freedom of the press also encompasses the fundamental duties of the press. These call for showing respect for others and responsible behaviour and cannot permit denigration of constitutional bodies and institutions and their important segments.

It should be noted that although the presiding officer of this House is publicly accused of improper behaviour and of partisanship, he cannot join in any public controversy. A most disquieting development is that when the matter has been raised in the House and the Speaker has reserved the ruling, there are open discussions in the electronic media as also in the same newspaper, where the concerned correspondent and his Editor have tried to justify the allegations and thereby in my opinion have aggravated the breach of privilege. Significantly, the Speaker can only be a viewer of the so-called discussion and not a participant. The Speaker has to depend on the commitment of the Members of this House, who are keen to preserve the dignity and status of this great institution. Precisely, for this reason, I had expressed my thanks to those Members who raised the matter on the floor of this House because only by such reference can there be exposure of contumacious acts. I have no manner of doubt that if such serious accusations of partisanship and libellous allegations had been made against the judiciary, it would have been a glaring example of contempt of court.

While reiterating my view of the allegations, I wish particularly to refer to some deliberately factual misstatements made in the article in an attempt to make out a case, so that Members and the country may be aware of the truth.

The article refers to the so-called conflict between the Chair and one Member over the parliamentary agenda. It has alleged that the Member felt that she was being gagged and as such had staged a dramatic protest. This accusation is clearly motivated. So far as I have been informed, that Member attended the House only on one day in the current monsoon session. She had given a notice of an adjournment motion on an issue identical with the one that had been fully discussed for several hours as an adjournment motion only on 26 July, and as such could not be allowed, under rule 58 (V), to be raised again in the session. She had not participated in the discussion. No other notice or intimation was submitted by the Member to the Lok Sabha or to the office of the Speaker of her intention to raise any other matter or issue. Thus there was no occasion for disallowing any matter that the Member wanted to raise during the whole of the 14th Lok Sabha. In spite of this fact, baseless allegations of gagging one particular member have been made and the motive is clear.

Further, it has been alleged in the article that on an occasion charges of highhanded behaviour (Tanashahi) were made by some Members directed at the Speaker. [However,] it was categorically stated by the Deputy Leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party that the slogans raised by some members of his party were directed at the Government and not at the Speaker. The statement was given wide publicity and there is no reason to assume that the correspondent and others did not know of it when they made the most scurrilous allegations against the Speaker.

Further, it has been alleged that in the monsoon session, 34 calling attention motions were admitted, of which 22 were raised by the Left parties; and that 14 of the 21 short duration debates under Rule 193 were initiated by the Left. These are nothing but imaginary particulars and I have no manner of doubt that this has been deliberately concocted with a view to bolstering the contrived attempt of alleging partisanship against the presiding officer. Anyone believing in truth or exactitude could not have made such reckless and tendentious allegations, which have only compounded the contumacious conduct.

In this circumstance, when the contents of the article on their face are grossly libellous and amount to contempt of the presiding officer of the House and thereby of the entire House and its Members, what should be done? One wonders what the dignity and prestige of this august House can be when it has a presiding officer with such vices and negative attributes as has been depicted in the article? I ask myself: does the publication even enhance the prestige of the media in this country? I yield to none in my regard for the media and their right to discharge their functions in a bona fide and constructive manner.

After assuming this high office, I have been regularly meeting with the editors and leading correspondents of the media and have sought their co-operation and valuable suggestions. The press is rightly described as the Fourth Estate, because without a free and responsible press, alive to its duties and believing in truth and honesty, this democratic system will almost collapse. I only hope that the fraternity, to which the correspondent belongs, will consider the matter in its proper perspective.

As to the action to be taken, I have already made my observations on 12 August, 2005, which I reiterate with all the emphasis in my command. I believe the disapprobation by large sections of this House of the contents of the article clearly indicates their opinion that the publication is grossly contumacious and a deliberate affront to this House, whereby gross breach of privilege has been committed. Submission has been made with considerable force and justification for reference of the matter to the Committee of Privileges. However, to my mind, in view of the condemnation on the floor of the House and as it will be beneath the dignity of this great institution to take further note of the motivated imputations in the impugned article, I do not give my consent as requested. I treat this matter as closed, of course with the observation that in future reckless and contumacious conduct indulged in by whosoever may be will be dealt with in the appropriate manner, so as to preserve and enhance the dignity of the highest public forum in our country.

(This is an edited excerpt of Speaker Somnath Chatterjee's ruling given on August 18, 2005.)