The current face off between the Karnataka Legislative Assembly and the media over the former’s decision to sentence two journalists to imprisonment for one year and a fine of `10,000 each for writing defamatory articles against some MLAs could end if both the institutions follow the advice and directions given by the Karnataka High Court and if the state legislature is aware of the Supreme Court decisions in regard to exercise of its plenary power.
The state Assembly’s decision on June 21 last to imprison Ravi Belagere and Anil Raj, the editors of two Kannada publications, has come as a rude shock to the media, not just in Karnataka but all over the country. The legislature’s move, which is unprecedented, is seen as too stringent and an assault on freedom of expression. Following the Assembly’s resolution, the two journalists moved the Karnataka High Court. The court has directed the two editors to appear before the Speaker and appeal for reconsideration of the Assembly’s decision. Following this, the Speaker could ask the Assembly to reconsider its decision at the next session. The court has also observed that if the legislators felt aggrieved, they could file defamation cases in courts.
The legislature would do well to follow the advice of the High Court. It must also understand that the country’s judiciary has never allowed a legislature to use its plenary power in a harsh and unreasonable manner. When it comes to over-sensitive legislatures and the media, there are several cases. But, in all the major cases, the legislatures have had to bow to judicial opinion and tone down their desire to “punish” journalists.
In 1952, the acting editor of Blitz, Dinshaw Homi Mistry, was arrested and detained for a week on the orders of the Speaker of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly for publishing an article that questioned the impartiality of the Speaker. Acting on a habeas corpus petition moved by Mistry, the Supreme Court ordered his release. In 1964, the same Assembly jailed Keshav Singh for publishing a pamphlet which it felt was derogatory of a member of the House. The Allahabad High Court ordered that Keshav Singh be released from jail. But the legislature decided to take on the judiciary. It held Keshav Singh, his advocate and the two judges of the Allahabad High Court who had passed the order, guilty of contempt of the House and directed that all of them be arrested and produced before the House! The two judges moved the High Court for relief. The full bench of the High Court admitted these petitions and ordered stay of execution of the Assembly’s resolution.
Anxious to end the conflict between the two estates—the legislature and the judiciary— the President made a reference to the Supreme Court under Article 143 (1) of the Constitution. This matter was heard by a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice P B Gajendragadkar. The Chief Justice wrote the majority view on behalf of five judges on the bench and himself. The fundamental principles laid down by the court in this case has often come to the rescue of journalists and others who have had to face the wrath of legislatures.
The main points made by the court in this case are as follows: In India, the Constitution is supreme and Indian legislatures cannot claim sovereignty similar to the Parliament in England; the judiciary has the exclusive power to interpret Article 194(3) from which legislatures draw their powers and privileges; and finally, legislatures must use their plenary powers with circumspection. If legislatures step beyond the legislative fields allotted to them, or ... trespass on the fundamental rights of the citizens ... their actions are liable to be struck down by courts.
On March 10, 1983, Eenadu carried a report about a ruckus in the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Council. The report’s headline said Peddala Galaba ( Elders’ Commotion!). Rather innocuous, you would think, but not so to the legislative council. The members of that House felt that the headline was derogatory of the House. The House issued a warrant to the Commissioner of Police, Hyderabad to produce Ramoji Rao, the Editor before the Bar of the House. Rao immediately moved the Supreme Court, which directed that he shall not be arrested.
On hearing the apex court’s order, the Commissioner of Police sought fresh directions from the House. The legislative council reiterated its instructions to the Commissioner of Police. Caught between two conflicting directions, the Commissioner of Police went to the office of Ramoji Rao and asked him to “accompany” him to the Legislative Council. Rao refused to do so, and instead gave the Commissioner of Police a letter stating that he cannot be arrested unless the orders of the Supreme Court are modified or vacated. Two days later, the Governor prorogued the Legislative Council and the matter ended there.
How far can a legislature go in these matters? It is best to quote Chief Justice Gajendragadkar in the Keshav Singh Case: “The power to punish for contempt, large as it is, must always be exercised cautiously, wisely and with circumspection. Frequent or indiscriminate use of this power in anger or irritation would not help to sustain the dignity of the court but may sometimes affect it adversely. Wise judges never forget that the best way to sustain the dignity and status of their office is to deserve respect from the public at large by the quality of their judgements, the fearlessness, fairness and objectivity of their approach, and by the restraint, dignity and decorum which they observe in their judicial conduct. We venture to think that what is true of the judicature is equally true of the legislature”. This should be food for thought for the Honourable Speaker!
A Surya Prakash
Chairman, Prasar Bharati