A stand-off in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : April 10, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The arrest of a member of the State Assembly on the orders of the Speaker following an incident in the House and his subsequent release on bail on court orders have raised some constitutional questions.

FOR two action-packed days in the fourth week of March, the legislature and the judiciary in Tamil Nadu seemed set on a course of confrontation over an issue which raised certain fundamental legal and constitutional questions. Assembly Speaker P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan decided to await a final order from the Madras High Court, which suspended first a warrant issued by him to arrest All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) member R. Thamaraikani for assaulting Agriculture Minister Veerapandi S. Arumugam in the House and later an Assembly resolution awarding the MLA 15 days' simple imprisonment.

The questions raised by the incident in the Assembly and the court's interim order making the Speaker's and the House's response to the incident ineffective are seen to involve the sovereignty of the legislature and issues of breach of privilege. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has said that "it is time we knew for sure what constitutes the boundary lines of the sovereignty of the legislature and the judiciary as spelt out in the Constitution."

On March 22, Thamaraikani punched Arumugam on his nose during the debate on the State budget, causing bleeding injuries. In the melee that followed, Thamaraikani and one of his colleagues were escorted out of the House. The Assembly voted to suspend them for the rest of the session.

The same day the Speaker issued a warrant directing the Chennai City Police Commissioner to arrest Thamaraikani "wherever he may be and produce him before the Superintendent, Central Jail, Chennai, for lodging him in prison for one week." Thamaraikani was arrested and put in the Central Prison. The next day the Assembly unanimously passed a resolution sentencing Thamaraikani to 15 days' simple imprisonment for breach of privilege of the House and "to protect the sovereignty of the Assembly". On two habeas corpus petitions filed by AIADMK member of the Rajya Sabha O.S. Manian on successive days, a Division Bench of the High Court, comprising Justice T. Jayarama Chouta and Justice S. Thangaraj, issued two orders on March 23 and 25, suspending the March 22 warrant issued by the Speaker and the March 23 resolution of the Assembly. Thamaraikani was released on March 24 on the strength of the March 23 order but was re-arrested on the basis of the March 23 Assembly resolution. The court again passed an interim order releasing him on bail. Both the habeas corpus petitions are pending final decision before the High Court. When the court took up the first habeas corpus petition on March 31, Public Prosecutor R. Shanmugasundaram said the petition could be disposed of as being infructuous because the court order to release Thamaraikani had been complied with. But the petitioner's counsel insisted that the first petition should also be heard. Justice Jayarama Chouta and Justice Thangaraj, therefore, posted both the habeas corpus petitions for hearing on April 8.

The court's orders, especially that of March 25, angered legislators, who said that the orders infringed on the sovereignty of the House. They called the situation "a mockery of democracy". The Speaker observed: "I am a servant of this House and will uphold its sovereignty and supremacy." Indian National League (INL) legislator M. Abdul Latheef said: "We legislators should assert ourselves. The entire House is behind the Speaker." Leader of the House and Education Minister K. Anbazhagan asked the Speaker not to allow any interference from the judiciary in the proceedings of the House.

Although Palanivel Rajan said on March 23 that he"will not receive or respond to any court order," he relented on March 25 after the court suspended the Assembly's resolution. He complied with the court's interim order and said that he would wait until it gave its final order. However, he added: "I do not believe that we will get a favourable judgment from the Madras High Court in this case." Karunanidhi, however, sounded conciliatory. He said that he would act as a "bridge between the judiciary and the legislature." He appealed to the Speaker to take suitable action to uphold the sovereignty of the House but added: "You know the spirit of give and take."

AIADMK legislator R. Thamaraikani after his release from the Central Jail in Chennai.-M. MOORTHY

THIS is not the first time that Thamaraikani, who has shown a pattern of belligerent behaviour, has physically confronted fellow legislators both inside and outside the Assembly. He hit Panrutti S. Ramachandran, at that time Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) member, inside the Assembly and later claimed that he had merely given him "an affectionate pat". On another occasion he had roughed up Dr. A. Chellakumar, who is now a Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) member of the Assembly. It was alleged that he manhandled A. Rahman Khan, now Labour Minister, on the legislators' hostel premises.

There have also been occasions when the Tamil Nadu Assembly became a virtual battleground. On January 28, 1988, after Janaki Ramachandran succeeded M.G. Ramachandran as Chief Minister following the latter's death, the Assembly met to enable the new Chief Minister to seek a vote of confidence. Members came to blows and goondas entered the House. Mikes were wrenched and pedestal fans and chairs were thrown about. City Police Commissioner W.I. Davaram led a police contingent into the House. The police went about beating people inside and outside the Assembly precincts.

Violence erupted in the Assembly on March 25, 1989 when Karunanidhi, who was Finance Minister as well as Chief Minister, was about to present the Budget. Karunanidhi alleged that he was punched in the nose, and he displayed his broken spectacles. Leader of the Opposition and AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha alleged that a Minister had pulled her saree. Veerapandi Arumugam, who was then Local Administration Minister, bled profusely from the forehead after he was hit with a mike.

Union Petroleum Minister Vazhappadi K. Ramamurthi, an inveterate baiter of Dravidian parties, blamed the March 22 incident on "Dravidian political culture".

Opinion is divided on the interim orders of the High Court. There is no doubt that the legislature has the power to convert itself into a court to try a person, award him punishment, and get it executed under its own orders. The one important question is whether the Speaker's order sentencing Thamaraikani to 15 days' imprisonment after the Assembly had passed the resolution was justiciable. If it was justiciable, did the Speaker have the power to convict Thamaraikani without giving him an opportunity to present his case? Again, there is a view that Thamaraikani need not be given a hearing because he attacked Arumugam in full view of the House. "These are the questions that the court has to decide," one advocate said.

Manian's main contention is that the Speaker has no power to issue a warrant and award imprisonment for a penal offence. Only a court can decide on an issue of penal offence coming under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), he argues. Besides, a detenu cannot be punished twice for the same cause of action, according to his petition. Once Thamaraikani was suspended from attending the rest of the session, the Assembly had no power to revive the issue and enhance the punishment, the petitioner said.

The Speaker said that the seven days he had indicated in the warrant issued by him was not imprisonment awarded to Thamaraikani but only an outer limit for arresting him and keeping him in custody until the House decided on the issue.

Article 212 (1) of the Constitution says: "The validity of any proceedings in the Legislature of a State shall not be called in question on the ground of any alleged irregularity of procedure." What is relevant here is Article 212 (2), which says: "No officer or member of the Legislature of a State in whom powers are vested by or under this Constitution for regulating procedure or the conduct of the business, or for maintaining order, in the Legislature shall be subject to the jurisdiction of any court in respect of the exercise by him of those powers." The advocate said that if Palanivel Rajan's order was traceable to Article 212 (2), then it was not subject to court jurisdiction. In habeas corpus petitions, bail was not normally granted unless the detention was found to be illegal, he added. (Palanivel Rajan said that the court should not have entertained the habeas corpus petitions because such petitions were admitted only in the case of missing persons. "In this case, everybody knows that Thamaraikani is safe in jail," he said.)

Another advocate said that the High Court was right in acting on the habeas corpus petitions because principles of natural justice came into play here. No opportunity was given to Thamaraikani to explain his stand. The advocate said that it was not clear under what penal section Thamaraikani had been sent to prison. So "the court's interference was absolutely proper," he added. He said that the High Court had not interfered with the Speaker's order suspending Thamaraikani from attending the rest of the Assembly session. The advocate referred to Article 21 of the Constitution, which says:, "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law." Thamaraikani was deprived of his liberty and the court could decide whether the Speaker did so as per law, he maintained.

It was during a sedate debate on the Budget that C. Karuppasamy of the AIADMK alleged that the law and order situation in the State had deteriorated and quoted the police as saying that they could not take action because their hands were tied. Health Minister Arcot P. Veerasamy asked Karuppasamy to specify the police officer who said so. At this stage, Thamaraikani made an allegation linking an anti-social element with a member of the Chief Minister's family. Infuriated DMK members started shouting down Thamaraikani. When Veerapandi Arumugam rose to intervene, Thamaraikani waved his hand at the Minister's face. When the Minister waved his hand towards Thamaraikani, the latter hit him on the nose. Arumugam started bleeding from the face.

Agriculture Minister Veerapandi S. Arumugam after the Assembly incident.-M. MOORTHY

Some DMK members ran towards Thamaraikani and tried to rough him up. (Thamaraikani later claimed that 60 DMK MLAS surrounded him and attacked him.) However, legislators belonging to other parties threw a cordon around him, and the watch and ward staff encircled both Thamaraikani and Karuppasamy and escorted them out. Karuppasamy alleged that he was roughed up by the DMK legislators in the House.

Palanivel Rajan issued a warrant to arrest Thamaraikani and lodge him in prison for a week. The police arrested Thamaraikani at the Apollo Hospitals where he and Karuppasamy had gone from Jayalalitha's Poes Garden residence. Thamaraikani was lodged in the Central Prison. On March 23, Justice Chouta and Justice Thangaraj suspended the arrest warrant issued by the Speaker and ordered Thamaraikani's release. Meanwhile, unaware of the court order, the Assembly passed a resolution sentencing Thamaraikani to 15 days' imprisonment after leaders of various parties met in the Speaker's chamber and discussed the issue.

When the Speaker came to know of the court order, he said that he would not take directions from the judiciary. He declared that he had to protect the sovereignty of the legislature. He said that there was no need to give Thamaraikani a hearing because the incident happened in full view of the House. Palanivel Rajan quoted from the rule books to argue that a contemner might not be heard in a case of contempt of the House, including criminal cases.

On March 24, after Thamaraikani was released from prison, he was re-arrested and imprisoned on the strength of the Assembly resolution. It was at this stage that Manian moved the second habeas corpus petition, also seeking suspension of the Assembly resolution, which, he said, violated the principles of natural justice because no opportunity was given to Thamaraikani to present his version.

Additional Advocate-General T.R. Rajagopalan, who argued against the petition, said that the Assembly had inherent powers to commit a person (to prison) for contempt and breach of privilege of the House. He said that the Assembly was "a master" of its own proceedings and the court could not sit in appeal over its decision in this regard.

AIADMK MLA C. Karuppasamy in a Chennai hospital a day after the incident in the Assembly.-M. MOORTHY

Justices Chouta and Thangaraj said the petitioner had made out a prima facie case. They directed the release of Thamaraikani on his executing a personal bond for Rs.25,000, with a surety for a like sum, before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate. The Bench, however said that if the petition ultimately failed, Thamaraikani would have to undergo the rest of the term of imprisonment awarded by the Assembly.

With this turn of events, the Speaker and the Chief Minister counselled a sober approach. Karunanidhi struck a metaphor on why the House relented. The approach of the House was akin to a tall person bending while passing through a short doorway, he said. "We are tall persons. So we have to bend and pass through."

According to Palanivel Rajan, Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi had accepted his suggestion to convene a meeting of presiding officers of State legislatures to discuss the constitutional issues arising from the March 22 incident.

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