The Speaker of the Karnataka Assembly, KB Koliwad, sentencing two tabloid editors in the state to one-year’s imprisonment and slapping them with fines of Rs 10,000 each for “breach of privilege” appears indefensible and out of proportion with the offence. Articles criticising three MLAs had been published some years ago in Ravi Belagere’s Hi Bangalore and Anil Raj’s Yelahanka Voice; however, instead of choosing the more appropriate recourse of litigation, the MLAs invoked “breach of privilege”. The Speaker authorised penal action for something that should have, at best, attracted admonition. While the sentencing is technically within the legislature’s powers, whether the framers of the Constitution envisaged ‘breach of privilege’ to lead to a prison sentence—a power usually exercised only by the courts—is open to question.
The problem stems from the Constitution’s provisions on privileges and powers of the legislature. Articles 105 and 194 were instituted to protect the “freedom of speech” and expression in Parliament and Assemblies and to ensure that no one from the outside could exert undue influence, pressure or coercion on the functioning of the legislative bodies—“to take part in the proceedings of a House of the Legislature of a State”. But, these provisions are loosely worded—Article 194 (3) states that “the powers, privileges and immunities of a House of the Legislature of a State, and of the members and the committees of a House of such Legislature, shall be such as may from time to time be defined by the Legislature by law, and, until so defined, shall be those of that House and of its members and committees”. But surely none of the newspaper articles was either affecting the MLAs’ “freedom of speech” or their ability “to take part in the proceedings” of the legislature? Breach of privilege cannot be used to prevent any criticism of MLAs/MPs.
The extent to which this can be abused was best seen in the case of Keshav Singh who was, in 1964, sentenced to seven days imprisonment by the Uttar Pradesh Speaker. Singh got bail from a two-judge bench of the Allahabad high court and this led to the Assembly issuing warrants against not just Singh but also the two judges and Singh’s advocate. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, it clarified that the powers of the assembly included the power to punish contempt. But the time has come for legislatures/Parliament to define more strictly what exactly ‘contempt of the house’ is and to codify the penalties for it including the right to imprisonment. Instead of the matter being referred to a court, it would be in everyone’s interests if legislature/Parliament itself took the lead in the matter—a blatant abuse of power will lend momentum to a public demand for the abolition of the privileges altogether.