Legislatures’ panels have the power to summon witnesses, SC told

Delhi Assembly justifies its Committee’s summons to Facebook officials to testify before it

Committees formed by State legislatures have the power to summon witnesses and enforce their attendance through compulsory process. It is a tradition that travels back 100s of years, the Delhi Assembly submitted in the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The Assembly was justifying the summons issued by its Committee on Peace and Harmony to Facebook officials to testify in connection with the Delhi communal riots in February last year.

The court is hearing a plea by senior Facebook official Ajit Mohan who alleged that the notices issued by the Committee threatened him with breach of privilege action unless he appeared before it to testify. He had asked the court to protect his right to silence. Mr. Mohan said the Committee had no power or jurisdiction to summon a private person like him.

“The order ultimately being asked for [by Mr. Mohan] from this court will spell the death knell for the work of legislative committees. All committees have the power to summon as witness and enforce attendance through compulsory process. To question this hundreds of years old tradition is like creating a Republic of Facebook within the Republic of India,” Mr. Singhvi argued.

Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan also agreed that the kind of notice sent by the Committee was “very common to Parliament and all the State legislatures”. The Committee, he said, had “merely followed a standard form of notice”.

Mr. Singhvi said, “Riots had happened in Delhi. After sometime, if the NCT of Delhi wants to look into it, it is unhealthy that Facebook does not co-operate.”

But Justice Kaul asked why the Committee had specifically asked for Mr. Mohan. By issuing notice to Mr. Mohan, was he being compelled to appear under the threat of breach of privilege. It should have been, as senior advocate Harish Salve for Mr. Mohan pointed out, left to Facebook to choose its representative to be sent before the Committee.

To this, Mr. Singhvi said, to his knowledge, the Committee wanted a “senior competent person” from Facebook to testify.

“I have never said that apart from Mr. Ajit Mohan anyone else cannot be recognised before us,” Mr. Singhvi submitted.

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