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Immunity won’t protect legislators taking bribes to vote in Parliament from criminal prosecution: SC

Why is it in the news?

  • A seven-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud overturned its own 1998 judgement in P V Narasimha Rao v State (CBI/Spe), ruling that legislators are not immune from criminal prosecution for bribery charges related to their speech and votes in Parliament or Legislative Assemblies.
  • This decision marked a significant departure from the previous interpretation that legislators enjoyed immunity under Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Constitution.

 

Context of the case

  • The case involved a scrutiny of Article 105(2) of the Constitution, which provides immunity to Members of Parliament (MPs) from court proceedings regarding their speech or votes in Parliament, and Article 194(2), which offers similar protections to members of state Assemblies.
  • The interpretation of these provisions, particularly in relation to parliamentary privilege, was under scrutiny, necessitating a re-evaluation of the 1998 JMM Bribery ruling.
  • The Supreme Court delved into the history of parliamentary privileges in India, noting that unlike the House of Commons in the UK, India’s privileges are rooted in statutes, transitioning to constitutional privileges post-independence.
  • The Court emphasized that parliamentary privilege comprises two components: collective House powers and individual member rights, subject to a necessity test. This test ensures that privileges are necessary for lawmakers to discharge their functions effectively.

 

Key Takeaways from the Ruling

  • The Supreme Court unequivocally stated that parliamentary immunity does not serve as a shield for legislators who accept bribes from facing criminal prosecution.
  • Central to the Court’s decision was the recognition of the corrosive impact of corruption and bribery on the foundational principles of Indian parliamentary democracy. The Court emphasized that allowing immunity for bribery would undermine trust and accountability in public institutions, posing a significant threat to the democratic process.
  • The Court clarified that the offense of bribery is deemed complete upon the acceptance of money by the legislator. This assertion highlights that the criminal act occurs irrespective of the subsequent actions or votes made by the lawmaker within the legislative body.
  • Parliamentary immunity was redefined to apply only when a legislator’s actions contribute to enhancing the dignity and authority of the House or are within the purview of their rights to free speech, protest, and freedom from arrest.
  • The ruling affirmed the parallel jurisdiction of criminal courts and legislative bodies in addressing allegations of bribery. It clarified that one jurisdiction does not negate the authority of the other, ensuring that lawmakers can be held accountable for their actions both within and outside the legislative sphere.
  • Lastly, the Court underscored the vital importance of maintaining probity in public life. By rejecting the notion of immunity for bribery-related offenses, the ruling upholds the integrity of democratic institutions and reinforces the principle of accountability for public officials.

 

 

Conclusion

  • The ruling underscores the significance of maintaining integrity in public office and ensures accountability for lawmakers.
  • It rejects any notion of special immunity for bribery-related offenses, affirming that claims to parliamentary privilege can be subject to judicial review.

 

JMM Bribery case

·       The case stemmed from allegations that Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs accepted bribes from Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao to vote against a no-confidence motion in 1993.

·       Investigations by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) led to charges against the accused, prompting appeals to the Supreme Court.

 

Majority Opinion in 1998 Ruling

·       Justice Barucha, in the majority opinion, held that MPs were immune from prosecution under Article 105(2), which shields them from liability in court proceedings related to their speech or votes in Parliament.

·       He argued that MPs must be allowed to exercise freedom of speech and that their votes should be considered an extension of this freedom, warranting protection under the Constitution.

 

Minority Opinion in 1998 Ruling

·       Justice S C Agarwal dissented, arguing that immunity from prosecution for bribery charges would undermine the rule of law.

·       He proposed interpreting the phrase “in respect of” as “arising out of” to ensure legislators could be held accountable for criminal acts, including accepting bribes, irrespective of their subsequent speech or vote.

 

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