Ideas >

Censoring MPs

A.G. Noorani
[ March 26, 2017 ]

Right at the outset, India decided to have a “parliamentary system of constitution, the British type of constitution, with which we are familiar,” as Vallabhbhai Patel said in June 1947. This emulation went to unusual lengths, the British model getting a specific mention in the Indian constitution, which came into effect on Jan 26, 1950.

Articles 105(3) and 194(3) of the constitution empower, respectively, parliament and state legislatures to define their powers, privileges and immunities ‘by law’ — but, ‘until so defined’, “they shall be those of the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and of its members and committees, at the commencement of this constitution”. This is still the position, despite cosmetic amendments. In 1958, a majority of the Indian Supreme Court ruled that “the House of Commons had at the commencement of our constitution the power or privilege of prohibiting the publication of even a true and faithful report of the debates or proceeding” and that “the effect in law of the order of the speaker to expunge a portion of the speech of a Member may be [sic] as if that portion had not been spoken”. It was pure ipse dixit. Worse still, they drew from it an absurd conclusion: “A report of the whole speech in such circumstances, though factually correct, may [sic], in law, be regarded as perverted and unfaithful report.” Nine years later, the report of the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privileges of the House of Commons proved the majority hopelessly wrong. The house had abandoned the ancient practice. The speaker of the house has none of the powers that successive speakers of the Lok Sabha have wielded for decades. One of them is the power to not only expunge words from the proceedings’ official records at the speaker’s own discretion, but to also direct the press not to report them. Last month, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury discovered that a speech he had given had been censored. Some passages had been deleted from the official record, even though they contained nothing unparliamentary or in breach of the rules, and neither had there been any such instruction from the chair during his speech. Six small portions were “expunged as ordered by the Chair”. Some of the portions were later restored. The deleted words, now back in the record, include “deception”, “disruption”, “diversion” and “diabolic agenda”. Last year, another member, M.B. Rajesh, had complained of something similar in the Lok Sabha when a critical mention of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was dropped from the ‘verbatim records’. The speaker’s power to expunge portions of the legislature’s record does not imply a power to order the press not to report the expunged portions. Another abuse is to order (in advance) that nothing is to be recorded because, in the speaker’s view, the member is infringing the rules.

The rules themselves confer no such power. Only words that are defamatory, indecent, unparliamentary or undignified “may be expunged from the proceedings of the House”. The rule concerns words ‘used’, not pre-emptively on those about to be used. It is altogether distinct from the speaker’s disciplinary powers. There is an entire section in Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice on the powers of the chair to enforce order. Expunction is not among them. But recently, in the last few decades, speakers have claimed ‘certain inherent powers’, including the power to expunge parts of the record. We have an authoritative statement of the law by the clerk of the House of Commons. The law is stated in a memorandum to the privileges committee dated May 9, 1978: “At present the speaker has no such power. The house itself has a power to order entries to be expunged from the journal and has exercised this power on rare occasions, though the manner in which the orders have been executed has varied … As far as any right or duties the press may have, they rest on reporting proceedings in parliament, not in quoting the official report.” It continues, “Hansard is as faithful a report as can be produced of what is said in the house. To bowdlerise Hansard in this fashion would be to pretend that words which undoubtedly had been said had never been said at all. In that event, Hansard would cease to be a faithful record.” A speech in parliament is addressed as much to the nation as it is to members of parliament. The people have a right to know who says what. Yet, even in this day and age where parliamentary proceedings are broadcast live on television, speakers persist in giving these absurd orders. If this abuse continues, both parliamentary proceedings and press reportage on them will lose all credibility. As a result, both institutions will suffer.
------------(Courtesy………… The views expressed by the author are her own but not of “Kashmir Horizon”)