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Immunity to legislators on bribery: Supreme Court to revisit order

SAYING THAT it is necessary to reconsider “the correctness” of a 1998 5-judge Constitution Bench judgment in the P V Narasimha Rao case — where the majority had held that legislators have immunity against criminal prosecution on bribery charges for any speech or vote in Parliament — the Supreme Court on Wednesday referred the decision to a 7-judge Bench.

A 5-judge Constitution Bench presided by Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud said the larger Bench would deal with the question of correctness of the verdict on the interpretation of Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Constitution, which extend the privilege to members of Parliament and State Legislatures respectively.

The P V Narasimha Rao case refers to the 1993 JMM bribery case, in which Shibu Soren and some of his party MPs were accused of taking bribes to vote against the no-confidence motion against the then P V Narasimha Rao government. The Supreme Court had quashed the case against the JMM MPs, citing immunity under Article 105(2).

On Wednesday, the matter came up in another case related to bribery charges against JMM MLA Sita Soren, who was accused of having accepted a bribe to vote for an independent candidate in the 2012 Rajya Sabha elections. A fresh election was held later.

Sita Soren had moved the Jharkhand High Court (HC) for quashing the chargesheet and criminal proceedings against her, relying on the provisions of Article 194 (2), but the HC had declined to do so.

She then approached the SC, where a two-judge Bench in September 2014 opined that since the issue was “substantial and of general public importance”, it should be placed before a larger Bench of three judges. On March 7, 2019, when a Bench of three judges took up the appeal, it noted that the HC judgment dealt with the Narasimha Rao verdict, and hence should be referred to a larger Bench.

Taking up the matter, the 5-judge Bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna, M M Sundresh, J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, said on Wednesday: “We are of the considered view that the correctness of the view of the majority in P V Narsimha Rao (case) should be reconsidered by a larger Bench of seven judges.” It said it is an “important issue that concerns our polity.”

“Above all, it must be noted that the purpose of Articles 105(2) and 194(2) is to ensure that members of Parliament and State Legislatures are able to discharge their duties in an atmosphere of freedom, without fear of the consequences which may follow for the manner in which they speak or exercise their right to vote on the floor of the House. The object clearly is not to set apart the members of the Legislature as persons who wield higher privileges in terms of immunity from the application of the general criminal law of the land,” the Bench said.

Attorney General R Venkataramani, while taking the stand that a reference was not necessary in the facts of the case, said the Narasimha Rao judgment does not apply to the Sita Soren case, as the immunity was only for actions with respect to the business of the House.

“The only question is – should we wait for it to arise sometime in the future or lay down a law? Because we must also not ignore that if it also furthers public morality on the part of our elected representatives, then we should not defer our decision to some uncertain day in the future,” the CJI said.

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“As a Constitution Bench, if we have a particular issue which deeply affects the morality of our polity — we shouldn’t, in that sense, not take an opportunity to straighten the law. We have four eminent counsels appearing in this. What better opportunity to straighten the law,” he said.

Senior Advocate Raju Ramachandran, appearing for the appellant, also said the reference may not be necessary in view of the facts of the case, but the Bench said it was “not inclined to accept the plea that the correctness of the decision in P V Narasimha Rao (case) does not arise in this case”.

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Senior Advocate R S Patwalia, who was appointed amicus curiae, and Senior Advocate Gopal Sankaranarayan, appearing for the intervenors, favoured reference to a 7-Judge Bench.

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