New Delhi, Nov. 8: The Tamil Nadu Assembly’s decision to jail senior journalists of The Hindu and the DMK mouthpiece Murasoli for breach of privilege has evoked sharp reactions from the legal fraternity.
Supreme Court designated senior counsel Rajeev Dhavan said the privilege law should be modelled on the one in the US, where legislators cannot be dragged to court over speeches made inside the House.
The privilege law in India provides this immunity to legislators. In addition, publication, comments or criticism of House proceedings can also attract punishment.
Legal experts pointed out that the privilege law was brought in during the medieval period in Britain where democracy was gaining ground and Parliament did not want interference from the monarchy.
“Now that monarchy is the thing of past, (and) democracy has struck its roots almost the world over, there is no need for such a law,” opined Justice Rajindar Sachar, retired chief justice of Delhi High Court.
Sachar and another counsel, Sanjay Parekh, filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of veteran journalist Kuldip Nayyar challenging the Assembly’s resolution sentencing the journalists to 15 days’ simple imprisonment.
Nayyar called for a repeal of archaic laws of privilege, which put public personalities and institutions above criticism. “It is high time that we did away with these laws,” he said.
Dhavan said privilege digest reports, 1953 onwards, “show most legislatures do not use the privilege power to protect a chief minister, a minister or a legislator”. “In fact, invocation of this power is actually infringement of free speech,” he said.
According to Dhavan, in 1967, the House of Commons in Britain in a report wrote that “this (privilege) power should be exercised with restraint and within the scope and ambit of ‘life, liberty and due process of law’”.
Journalists in the capital gathered outside the Press Club, blocking traffic and demanding an immediate withdrawal of the Tamil Nadu Assembly’s order. Political parties, too, reacted sharply, though the BJP chose its words carefully so as not to upset the ADMK leader who has supported them on various occasions. The Congress did not comment on the call for the repeal of outdated laws.
In a more combative tone, BJP president Venkaiah Naidu said: “The BJP urges the Tamil Nadu government and state legislature to review and repeal its decision.”
“Such actions weaken democracy and need to be withdrawn. As responsible persons in public life we are expected to be liberal about criticism,” he said.