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Beyond self-denying tolerance

In refusing consent for the privilege motion against The Pioneer in which columnist Swapan Dasgupta charged him with partisanship in conducting the proceedings of the House, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee, has displayed a democratic spirit that is commendable for its self-denying tolerance. Other presiding officers and legislatures have been quick to take offence and impose harsh penalties for far less, and Mr. Chatterjee's ruling is in line with the hope expressed by the Supreme Court, while upholding legislative privilege, that legislatures "will not exercise the powers, privileges and immunities except in gross cases." The columnist had alleged that as Speaker he had gagged Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, had shown a bias towards the Left in admitting call attention motions, and that his conduct had so upset the Bharatiya Janata Party members that they even shouted slogans against his high-handedness in the Lok Sabha. In his ruling, Mr. Chatterjee refuted these charges specifically, found that gross breach of privilege had been committed but closed the matter saying it would be beneath the dignity of the House to take further note of the "motivated imputation." This newspaper cannot subscribe to the charge of partisanship, for Mr. Chatterjee has been fair and democratic in conducting the proceedings of the 14th Lok Sabha. Still, expression of opinion, however wrong or misguided, is not to be regarded as breaching the privilege of the House.

Indeed, while the final outcome has been for the good, the reasoning that it amounted to a breach of privilege of the House and the caution that "future reckless and contumacious conduct" will be dealt with "appropriately" would seem debatable. The power to punish for breach of privilege is a special and extraordinary power that imposes penalties outside the judicial process and through a majority vote, making the legislature the judge in its own cause. It is to be used for ensuring that the legislatures function without hindrance or obstruction, not to place elected representatives beyond public criticism. Indeed, the notion that it could be invoked to protect the dignity and prestige of the legislature or of any of its members or officers who exercise power in the name of the people offends the republican spirit of the Constitution and is based on an old British concept that has long since been abandoned even by the House of Commons. The question arises what the remedy would be when any of the legislators or the Speaker becomes the target of unfair criticism and unfounded allegations. In common with everyone else, they have recourse to the law of defamation, and can sue for damages if the comments turn out to be defamatory. In addition, because of the public nature of their positions, they have access to the media that ensures that their statements are carried to a far wider audience than the original comment was, as was evident in the case of Speaker Chatterjee's refutation. There is clearly no reason why the power to punish for breach of privilege or contempt should be invoked for any purpose other than to remove an immediate obstruction to the functioning of the legislature.

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