Worse than expulsion, punishment on constituency: SC

To start with, we saw how just recently the 12 BJP MLAs from Maharashtra had gone to the Supreme Court in protest against their year-long suspension from the State Assembly which definitely appears too harsh a punishment. Without any reservation, the Apex Court expressed an inclination to interfere with the resolution passed on July 5, 2021 by the Maharashtra State Legislative Assembly. We also saw how when the petition in this case titled Ashish Shelar And Ors. Vs The Maharashtra Legislative Assembly And Anr. in W.P.(C) No. 797/2021 and connected cases was called for hearing on January 11, 2021, the Apex Court Bench comprising of Justice AM Khanwilkar, Justice Dinsh Maheshwari and Justice CT Ravikumar after hearing the case in part minced no words to observe that the suspension of 12 BJP MLAs from the Maharashtra Assembly for a full year is “prima facie unconstitutional” and “worse than expulsion” as the constituency is remaining unrepresented.

It cannot be glossed over that the Apex Court has flagged the statutory requirement to not keep a seat vacant for more than 6 months! What Apex Court has said is absolutely valid. The Apex Court also minced no words to say most effectively, elegantly and eloquently that a “constitutional void” and a “hiatus situation” has been created in these constituencies and the “consequences are dreadful”.

To put things in perspective, the Bench also pointed out that, “If there is expulsion, there is a mechanism to fill up the vacancy. The suspension for one year will amount to a punishment on the constituency.” Justice AM Khanwilkar observed in simple, suave and straight language that, “This decision is worse than expulsion. No one can represent these constituencies in the House when they are not there…This is not punishing the member but punishing the constituency as a whole.”

To recapitulate, on July 5, 2021, we witnessed for ourselves how soon after the Assembly met for its two-day monsoon session, there was a lot of commotion and furore as Leader of Opposition and former Chief Minister of Maharashtra – Devendra Fadnavis of BJP objected seriously to an attempt by State Minister Chhagan Bhujbal of NCP to table a resolution demanding that the Centre release data on Other Backward Classes (OBCs) so that seats could be reserved exclusively for them in local bodies in Maharashtra. While protesting we also saw how several BJP MLAs had entered the well in protest, snatched the mace and uprooted mics which led to frayed tempers. We also witnessed how the Shiv Sena MLA Bhaskar Jadhav who was in the Chair presiding the House then adjourned the House for 10 minutes following which some BJP MLAs allegedly entered his chamber and threatened, abused and misbehaved with him which is definitely most outrageous and cannot be ever justified.

In hindsight, it must be mentioned here that the Maharashtra House was devoid of any Speaker in the House stemming from Nana Patole of the Congress party resigning and Shiv Sena MLA Bhaskar Jadhav was one of the four presiding officers that were named by Acting Speaker Narhari Zirwal the previous day. It also deserves mentioning here that Maharashtra Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anil Parab subsequently moved a resolution to suspend 12 BJP MLAs – Bunty Bhangdia, Abhimanyu Pawar, Girish Mahajan, Atul Bhatkhalkar, Parag Alavani, Harish Pimpale, Yogesh Sagar, Jaikumar Rawal, Narayan Kuche, Ram Satpute and Bunty Bhangdia – for a year. Naturally, the suspended 12 BJP MLAs then filed a writ petition in the Apex Court in 2021 against the Maharashtra State Assembly and the State of Maharashtra and asked for the suspension to be quashed as they felt that the punishment was too much. The matter has been posted for further hearing on January 18.

To be sure, we need to pay attention here that the Bench made it absolutely clear that as per the relevant rules, the Assembly has no power to suspend a member beyond 60 days. In this regard, the Bench then sought it fit to refer to Article 190(4) of the Constitution which stipulates that a seat will be deemed to have become vacant if a member remains absent in the House without its permission for a period of 60 days. The Bench pointed out clearly that as per Constitutional provisions, a constituency cannot go unrepresented for a period beyond 6 months. It cannot be lost on us that while saying so, the Bench flatly refused to buy the argument of senior and eminent advocate of Apex Court C Aryama Sundaram who appeared for the State of Maharashtra that the court cannot examine the quantum of punishment imposed by a Legislative Assembly.

As it turned out, what followed next was that after the Bench expressed its views, Sundaram then politely sought time to take instructions from the State. The hearing was then accordingly adjourned to January 18. The Bench made it clear that it will not go into other aspects except the quantum of punishment. Justice Khanwilkar told Sundaram that, “…we can say that the decision to suspension can only operate till 6 months and later than that it will be hit by a constitutional bar.”

As we see, the petition of suspended 12 BJP MLAs submitted that their suspension is “grossly arbitrary and disproportionate”. The challenge that they bank upon is denial of the principles of natural justice and violation of laid down procedure as per the law. It is the strong grievance of these MLAs that they were not even given an opportunity to present their case and that their suspension violated their fundamental right to equality before law as enshrined under Article 14 of the Constitution. They have also submitted that contrary to rules, they were not given access to video of the proceedings of the House and it was not clear how they had been identified in the large crowd that had gathered in the chamber. They do have a point!

Furthermore, the MLAs have reckoned that under Rule 53 of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly Rules, the power to suspend can only be exercised by the Speaker and it cannot be put to vote in a resolution as was done glaringly in this case. For esteemed readers exclusive benefit, it must be mentioned here that Rule 53 states that, “The Speaker may direct any member who refuses to obey his decision, or whose conduct is, in his opinion, grossly disorderly, to withdraw immediately from the Assembly.” The member must “absent himself during the remainder of the day’s meeting.” Should any member be ordered to withdraw for a second time in the same session, the Speaker may direct the member to absent himself “for any period not longer than the remainder of the Session”.

Of course, it cannot be denied that the Bench rightly said that, “The basic structure of the Constitution would be hit if the constituencies of the suspended MLAs remained unrepresented in the Assembly for a full year.” The Bench very rightly referred to Article 190(4) of the Constitution which stipulates that, “If for a period of sixty days a member of a House of the Legislature of a State is without permission of the House absent from all meetings thereof, the House may declare his seat vacant.”

Be it noted, under Section 151 (A) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, “a bye election for filling any vacancy..[in the House] shall be held within a period of six months from the date of the occurrence of the vacancy.” This clearly implies that barring exceptions specified under this Section, no constituency can remain without a representative for more than six months. This is why the Apex Court flagged most commendably the statutory obligation to not keep a seat vacant for more than 6 months which no one can ever deny!

It would also be worth noting that Rules 373, 374 and 374A of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha stipulate for the withdrawal of a member whose conduct is “grossly disorderly” and suspension of one who abuses the rules of the House or willfully obstructs its business. It is quite noteworthy that the maximum suspension as per these Rules is as stated “for five consecutive sittings or the remainder of the session, whichever is less.” It has to be conceded that the maximum suspension as per these Rules is “for five consecutive sittings or the remainder of the session, whichever is less.”

What’s more, the maximum suspension for Raja Sabha under Rules 255 and 256 also does not exceed the remainder of the session. Several recent suspension as we witnessed of members did not exceed the remainder of the season. This is exactly what the Apex Court took into account also.

In addition, we saw how Mahesh Jethmalani who is an eminent and senior lawyer of the Supreme Court pointed out cogently that recently when the Rajya Sabha suspended 12 MLAs for disorderly behaviour, it operated only for the duration of the session. He argued that the rights of the constituency are also to be protected. Mukul Rohatgi who is the former Attorney General of India and also an eminent and senior Supreme Court lawyer too argued that the principles of natural justice were violated by the House. The petitioner’s lawyers argued that the Court has jurisdiction to examine the correctness of the punishment of the House. Senior advocate Siddharth Bhatnagar raised the argument that the suspension cannot exceed 6 months. He submitted that, “If seats are allowed to be vacant then it has a major effect on the democracy. This is worse than expulsion.” He also added that this can allow the government to manipulate the strength in the House to secure majority votes in crucial issues.

In conclusion, we definitely have to keep our fingers crossed as to what the Apex Court will finally rule when it comes up for hearing on January 18. But it goes without saying that the case of the petitioner is strong. This quite evident from what we see the initial observations of the Judges who are hearing this high profile case. One is sure that the Apex Court will decide the case as per the law and we will soon read what is ruled also in this leading case!

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