The Madras High Court on Wednesday set aside fresh show cause notices issued by the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly’s Committee of Privileges to DMK president M.K. Stalin, 18 other legislators from his party and expelled MLA Ku.Ka. Selvam in September 2020 for having displayed gutkha sachets in the House in July 2017.
In her orders, Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana observed that the Assembly should not only commence its proceedings with the Speaker reciting a couplet from Thirukkural every day, but “the legislators should also follow the Thirukkural in their day-to-day life both inside and outside the Assembly”.
The original notices issued in 2017 were quashed by the first Division Bench of the High Court in August 2020 after observing that they suffer from a foundational error of assuming that the display of gutkha sachets, to attract the attention of the House to their availability in bunk shops despite a ban, was per se prohibited under the law.
The Bench, however, granted liberty to the Committee of Privileges to deliberate on the issue and proceed further if it was still of the opinion that a breach of privilege had been committed. On the strength of such liberty, the Committee expanded the scope of reference made to it by the Speaker and issued fresh notices, Justice Sathyanarayana said.
Disapproving of such a course adopted by the Committee, the judge pointed out that the July 2017 notices were issued to the legislators for bringing “prohibited items” into the House. However, the September 2020 notices had improved the charge and accused the 19 legislators of displaying the sachets without the permission of the Speaker.
Pointing out that the Division Bench itself had pointed out that the Assembly had not codified its privileges till date in spite of the need to do so, the judge said: “When there are no clearly laid out rules on what constitutes breach of privilege and what punishment it entails, it could not be stated that the petitioners ought to have obtained permission from the first respondent.”
The judge held that the fresh notices suffer from procedural irregularities too since the Speaker had referred the issue to the Committee of Privileges at the instance of a request made by the Fisheries Minister. When a reference had been made at the instance of a legislator, the 19 MLAs ought to have been given an opportunity in the House to explain their stand, she added.
“Rule 223 of the TNLA Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Rules has not been followed and no opportunity was afforded to the petitioners,” the judge said and stated that though the Speaker enjoys suo motu power of reference, the latter had refused to accept notices issued to him by the court in the present batch of petitionsand explain whether he had exercised his suo motu power or not.
Though the Secretary to TNLA the Assembly had accepted court notices, he did not file any counter-affidavit. The counter-affidavit had been filed only by the Committee of Privileges, comprising which again was chaired by Deputy Speaker Pollachi V. Jayaraman and comprised of Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, who had been accused of harbouring political a grudge against the petitioners.
After recording the submission of senior counsel R. Shunmugasundaram and N.R. Elango and advocate Amit Anand Tiwari that Mr. Jayaraman had filed a defamation suit against Mr. Stalin and that the DMK had filed cases to unseat Mr. Panneerselvam, the judge observed: “The contention of the petitioners in this regard cannot be brushed aside lightly.”
She referred to Rule 228 which categorically states that a member of the Committee who had a personal or direct interest, of such a character that it might prejudicially affect the consideration of the matter of privilege to be considered by the Committee, should not sit on the Committee when the matter was under consideration.