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SUPREME COURT’S VERDICT ON SUSPENSION OF MLAS: AN ANALYSIS

INTRODUCTION

Recently, the Hon’ble Supreme Court revoked a year-long suspension of 12 MLAs of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. The resolution dated 5/7/2021 passed by the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly suspended the MLAs for a period of one year on the pretext of their disorderly behavior during the ongoing monsoon session. Subsequent to the resolution, the suspended MLAs filed a writ petition (Ashish Shelar and Ors. v. State of Maharashtra Legislative Assembly and anr.) in the Hon’ble Supreme Court. The following events unfolded during the session. During the proceedings of the House heated, conversations took place between the Ruling and the Opposition parties, as the latter felt that they were being consciously suppressed and that the business was being conducted in a unilateral fashion. Additionally, the leader of the Opposition was denied a chance to express his views on a crucial motion that was under consideration. The then Minister, (as the election for appointing the Speaker of the House had not taken place) who was moving a resolution pertaining to the data on OBCs, refused the Leader of the Opposition an opportunity to present his views opposing the motion. This move created an uproar in the House as a result of which it was adjourned. Following the adjournment, the Opposition party approached the Deputy Speaker with their grievances regarding the manner of proceedings. The Ruling party also arrived and engaged in an altercation. However, the next session began with a sincere apology by the Leader of Opposition for the disturbances caused previously. But the petitioners and the members of the Opposition Party were flabbergasted when the Minster of Parliamentary affairs initiated a resolution to suspend the MLAs, which in turn was passed by majority votes. The challenge to suspension relied mainly on grounds of denial of the principles of natural justice and violation of laid-down procedure [1]. The MLAs were not allowed to present their opinions, and their suspension in itself violated Article 14[2] (equality before law) of the Constitution. Additionally, Rule 53 of the Maharashtra Assembly states, “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 and any member so ordered to withdraw shall do so forthwith and shall absent himself during the remainder of the day’s meeting. If any member is ordered to withdraw a second time in the same session, the Speaker may direct the member to absent himself from the meetings of the Assembly for any period not longer than the remainder of the Session[3]. The Rule unambiguously throws light on the fact that the person in case of misconduct, has to absent himself from the proceedings of the house, however, the time period of suspension should not be more than the remaining period of the ongoing session.

ARGUMENTS ADVANCED BY THE STATE

The first and the foremost defence taken by the State (herein, respondent) was under Article 212 of the constitution. Article 212 states, “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” [4]. The respondent argued that they acted within their ‘legislative competence’ and the Court did not have the jurisdiction to entertain proceedings pertaining to the aforementioned subject. Mention of Article 208[5] was made which stated that a state assembly may make the rules pertaining to the House provided they are in consonance with the spirit of the Constitution. Additionally, the Governor after consultation with Speaker and Chairman may amend the rules. The counsel argued that the House had the prerogative to adapt its procedure even if it dehors the rules framed under Article 208[6].

The state also referred to Article 194 of the Constitution. Article 194 deals with the powers, privileges, and immunities of the State Legislatures [7] and its members thereof which are non-justiciable. The respondent argued that Article 194 imparts freedom and power to the House to formulate its procedures for suspension of a member. Reference was made to previous occasions when similar resolutions were passed and a member was suspended for a year and thus, House had the ‘inherent power of expulsion’ in such cases of gross misconduct. Rule 53 of the ‘Rules’ elucidated the powers of a ‘Speaker’, however, the rule does not act as a bar for the ‘House’ to initiate resolution against any member. The respondent vehemently argued that the scope of judicial review was restricted to proceedings that are ‘unconstitutional’. In the present matter, the proceedings of the house were ‘self-eloquent’. The resolution mentioned the reasons for suspending the MLAs for a year and hence, was not unconstitutional.

JUDGEMENT OF THE HON’BLE SUPREME COURT

The Hon’ble Court held that the suspension of MLAs was ‘unconstitutional’, ‘substantively illegal’ and ‘beyond the powers of the assembly’ [8]. The court held that the resolution passed by the House was ‘irrational’ since the suspension should be limited to the time frame of the ongoing session. The bench took note of the fact that a suspension for one full year was even worse than expulsion. For, in cases of expulsion the vacant seats would be filled up through suitable mechanisms. A reduction in the number of members of the Opposition party would put the coalition government at a higher pedestal since the opposition might not be able to effectively participate fearing such suspensions. Hence, suspension for such an overlong period would not only leave the seats vacant but would amount to punishing the constituency as a whole. The bench referred to Article 190(4), which lays down that the House may declare the seat vacant of a member who is absent for 60 days without permission [9]. This constitutional mandate had not been followed by the Assembly. Additionally, reference was also made to Section 151(A) of The Representation of the People Act, 1951 mandates a bye-election for filling any vacancy shall be held within six months from the date of the occurrence of the vacancy [10]. This indicates that no constituency can have a vacant seat for more than six months. As far as the matter of judicial intervention is concerned since the act by the House was prima facia unconstitutional, as per the previous rulings, the Apex court has acted within its jurisdiction. Again, the court said that there was a gross violation of the principles of natural justice by not allowing the suspended MLAs an opportunity to be heard [11].

CONCLUSION

The Apex Court has delivered a prodigious judgment. One can descry that the resolution passed by the House challenged the constitutional mandates in different ways. Nonetheless, the judgment made it crystal clear that none of the ‘inherent powers’ that are vested with the House can run against the spirit of the Constitution and democracy.  One must note that deviation from the rules, followed by a proper procedure is not discouraged but the changes must uphold the constitutional spirit, values and should be made keeping in light the betterment of its members. In the aforementioned case, a deviation was made, however, such a change hurt the democratic values and violated legal principles. In the absence of timely intervention by the Apex court, such a practice would have become a model for others to use their unbridled powers. Such practices destroy the very fabric that binds and motivates people to abide by the laws. Another issue addressed by the court was the judicial intervention in the legislature’s proceedings. One must note that in regular circumstances judiciary and legislatures though intertwined, are distinct and separate in many ways. However, when an act is carried out unconstitutionally, judicial intervention is deemed necessary and legal. Thus, the judicial-legislature interplay and distinctions were once again upheld and revitalized by the Apex court. In all probabilities, if the Apex court had not dealt with the case the way it did, it would have become a dangerous precedent.

Author(s) Name: Anaya Nandish Shah (Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar)