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HC stays breach of privilege proceedings

DMK MLAs displayed gutkha sachets in the Assembly in 2017

The Madras High Court on Thursday stayed all further proceedings pursuant to fresh show cause notices issued to DMK president M.K. Stalin and 17 other MLAs of his party on September 7 for having allegedly breached the privileges of the Legislative Assembly by displaying gutkha (chewing tobacco) sachets there on July 19, 2017.

Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana held that the petitioners had made out a prima facie case for grant of interim relief and the balance of convenience was also in their favour.

She further ordered notice to the Speaker on the petitioners’ main plea to quash the showcause notices on grounds of perversity, illegality, mala fides and lack of jurisdiction.

The judge agreed with senior counsel R. Shunmugasundaram, N.R. Elango and Amit Anand Tiwari that Chief Justice Amreshwar Pratap Sahi and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy had on August 25 given a specific finding that possession and display of gutkha sachets were neither prohibited under law nor amounted to breach of privilege.

Disposing of an earlier batch of writ petitions filed by the MLAs challenging the previous show cause notices issued to them on August 28, 2017, for the same act, the first Division Bench had said that gutkha could not be equated to substances like narcotic drugs or liquor bottles, whose possession, per se, would be illegal and, therefore, might amount to breach of privilege.

‘Poor enforcement’

The Bench also pointed out that the intention of the MLAs in displaying the gutkha sachets in the Assembly was not to promote the substance whose manufacture, transportation, storage, distribution and sale was banned in the State. They only intended to exhibit the poor enforcement of the ban and the free availability of the substance in bunk shops.

“The above judgment of the Division Bench is not challenged by the respondents [Speaker, Assembly Secretary, Committee of Privileges] herein; instead, they have thought it fit to issue fresh show cause notices based on liberty granted by the Bench to deliberate upon the issue if the committee was still of the opinion that any breach had been committed,” Justice Sathyanarayana said.

In their challenge to the fresh notices through the present batch of cases, the MLAs contended that Rule 222 (1) of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Rules clearly stated that an issue of breach of privilege should be restricted to a specific matter of recent occurrence. Hence, fresh notices could not be issued in September for an event that occurred in July 2017, they argued.

The petitioners also said Rule 228 prohibited a person from being a member of the Committee of Privileges if he/she had a personal or direct interest of such a character that it may prejudicially affect the proceedings. In the present case, they objected to the presence of Deputy Speaker Pollachi V. Jayaraman and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam in the committee.

They pointed out that the Deputy Speaker had filed a defamation suit against Mr. Stalin in the High Court, claiming compensation of over ₹1 crore, and that all DMK MLAs had been opposing the continuance of Mr. Panneerselvam in the Cabinet, despite having voted against a confidence motion moved by Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami on February 18, 2017.

The presence of the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chief Minister in the present committee vitiated the entire proceedings, the petitioners said.

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