Sucheta Dalal :LET US PROTEST: Support the Hindu
Sucheta Dalal

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LET US PROTEST: Support the Hindu  

November 10, 2003

To show our solidarity with The Hindu, we reproduce below, without prejudice, the editorial that caused the Tamil Nadu assembly to sentence the newspaper's senior editors to 15 day imprisonment for breach of privilege. You can show your solidarity too, by posting your comments to the editorial. Sucheta Dalal

Rising Intolerance

With each passing day, the Jayalalithaa administration in Tamil Nadu seems to be scaling new heights of intolerance. The crude use of state power against various sections including political opponents and the independent media shows a contempt for the democratic spirit that is deeply disturbing. Perhaps because she was at the receiving end of a series of criminal cases filed by the previous DMK administration, she sees her return to power as an opportunity to wield the sanctioning and prosecuting power of the state blatantly to her political advantage. In the process, the law and order machinery is working overtime and the administration seems to be trampling on the basic rights of the people. The Government should feel secure with its huge mandate and use the opportunity to concentrate on the tasks of governance without even the distractions of a political challenge. Ironically, it is instead behaving like an administration which is unsure of itself and is living from day to day. Its inordinate appetite for political confrontation is bound to take a heavy toll in terms of diminution of democratic rights and the welfare of the State as a whole. The courts can no doubt be counted upon to protect the rights, but the disturbing frequency with which people have had to resort to courts for relief and the fact that respect for democratic norms has to be brought home through court rulings reflect poorly on the style of governance.

At one time, along with the Chief Ministers of neighbouring States, not even the Prime Minister was spared from Ms. Jayalalithaa’s vehement attack — a development that the Supreme Court took serious note of and made her withdraw. A far more serious attack was launched against her political opponents within the State in the form of prosecutions, arrests and detentions. The media too have come under pressure with a slew of defamation cases that are quite unparalleled. The latest in this pattern of functioning is the privilege issue taken up by the Tamil Nadu Assembly over three reports of its proceedings published in The Hindu. A series of descriptive phrases, mostly about the Chief Minister’s speeches, strung together from separate reports have been collectively referred to the Assembly’s Privileges Commit-tee, and given its composition, the outcome hinges critically on the attitude of the AIADMK members. The phrases objected to in a statement made by the Speaker include “stinging abuse”, “unrestrained attacks on the opposition”, “fumed”, “incensed”, “chastisement” and “diatribe”, all used in different contexts in describing Ms. Jayalalithaa’s speeches on different occasions.

These phrases are described as indecent and their use is said to be motivated by a desire to diminish the goodwill and fame that the Government enjoys. The phrases are said to constitute baseless accusations and their publication is said to be derogatory to the dignity of the House and a breach of its privilege.

It is useful to note in this context that the device of privilege of the legislature exists to protect its free and independent functioning, and not to protect the reputation of the Government or of individual members. This was made clear by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha with reference to the remarks of Rajaji that the Congress had declined and its legislators “were such people whom any first class magistrate would round up”. He was following a ruling in the House of Commons that “hard words used against persons and parties are dealt with, if necessary, by the law of defamation and it is only where the House as a whole is affected...a question of privilege arises”. The House of Commons on whose practice the privileges of legislatures are still based does not allow privilege issues to be raised over reports of proceedings unless they relate to proceedings behind closed doors or expunged portions of any speech. Because of its extraordinary nature and because the legislature sits in judgement on its own cause or in the matter of an important member, it ought to be used only rarely when there is real obstruction to its functioning, and not in a way that sets legislators above ordinary comment and criticism. To invoke it lightly or to ward off innocuous, even if unflattering, comments on individual legislators would be grossly offensive to the democratic spirit and would inhibit independent reporting and assessment of the performance of legislators. The tone of the speeches, the quality of debates, the behaviour of the legislators, the nature and importance of the business transacted, violence, walk outs and the space allowed for the opposition are all matters that are legitimately commented upon in all democracies. The Supreme Court while upholding the constitutional validity of parliamentary privilege, observed that “we are well persuaded that our Houses, like the House of Commons will appreciate the benefit of publicity and will not exercise the powers, privileges and immunities except in gross cases” and it is incumbent on legislatures not to act in a way that betrays that trust.

-- Sucheta Dalal