New Delhi: By dismissing a Kerala government plea for permission to withdraw criminal cases against a few Left MLAs who had indulged in blatant hooliganism in the Assembly way back in 2015, the Supreme Court has made it clear that elected representatives are not above the law. What happened on 13 March 2015 watched by millions of Malayalis across the world live is considered the darkest moment in the state’s legislative history.
In the name of stalling a “corrupt” Finance Minister from presenting the state budget, the then opposition Left Front legislators had vandalised the House, toppling the table and chair of the Speaker and smashing computers and telephones. The then Speaker of the House had promptly suspended six legislators belonging to CPM and CPI and asked the police to file a criminal case against them for destroying public property.
However, the Left Front government, which came to power shortly after in 2016, decided to withdraw the criminal cases since it considered that day’s events as a “form of protest”, an act of freedom of speech, and not a criminal offence. Moreover, the government maintained that it was withdrawing the criminal cases in “public interest”.
First the Chief Judicial Magistrate turned down the state government pleas and ruled that the legislators must face trial. Undaunted, the first Pinarayi Vijayan-led government moved the High Court, which promptly upheld the ruling of the CJM, point by point. It was then that the state government petitioned the top court of the land.
“Privileges and immunity are not gateways to claim exemptions from the general law of the land, particularly the criminal law that governs the action of every citizen. To claim an exemption from the application of criminal law would be to betray the trust which is impressed on the character of elected representatives as the makers and enactors of the law,” a Bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said.
“Consequently, acts of vandalism cannot be manifestations of the freedom of speech and cannot be termed as ‘proceedings’ of the Assembly. It was not the intention of the drafters of the Constitution to extend the interpretation of ‘freedom of speech’ to include criminal acts by placing them under a veil of protest. Hence, the Constitution only grants the members the freedom of speech that is necessary for their active participation in meaningful deliberations without any fear of prosecution,” the Bench further said.
Here is a classic case of misuse of its power by an elected government. It is pertinent that a government, which takes action against the general public, which indulges in vandalism and destruction of public property, exonerates legislators who had indulged in such an act, if not worse, inside the Assembly. When the first Pinarayi-government initiated such a move, it was considered an open challenge to the public.
But all caution was thrown to the winds. The government prosecutor, who pointed out that such a case would not hold water, was brushed aside. In fact, the prosecutor concerned was persecuted and shunted out of Thiruvananthapuram just months before her retirement.
“When the case came up in the CJM court, I as the prosecutor was asked by the government to argue in favour of withdrawal of the cases. When I insisted that the case cannot be withdrawn, the government hired an outside lawyer to argue its case. There were heated exchanges between that lawyer and myself in the court. Ultimately, I was removed from the prosecutor’s post and shunted to Alappuzha,” said Beena Sathish, former deputy director of prosecutions.
The government contention that it wants to withdraw the cases against the six on grounds of “public interest” is something unheard of and a cruel joke on the tax-paying public. Imagine an elected government trying to protect someone who had destroyed public property worth Rs 2.2 lakh in the name of public interest. It did not stop there. The government has used the taxpayer’s money to hire expensive lawyers to argue its case in the High Court and the Supreme Court. At a rough estimate this case so far has cost the public exchequer Rs 50 lakh.
On the political side, a series of absurd dramas were enacted. After it came to power a year later in 2016, the Left Front picked a particular MLA belonging to CPM who was seen kicking and stompingon the Speaker’s chair in 2015, as the new Speaker of the Assembly. There can’t be a greater insult to the chair of the Speaker. Another prominent MLA who went on the rampage was made Minister of Industries.
The star performer of that fateful day, V. Sivankutty—he can be seen on TV replays/clippings, dhoti folded up in typical Malayali style, grappling with marshals and turning the table upside down—has been rewarded at last. He is the Minister for Education in Pinarayi Vijayan’s brand new Team 2021. Sivankutty had to wait five years to become a minister as he unexpectedly lost the 2016 elections to BJP veteran O. Rajagopal, who opened the account for the party in the state Assembly for the first time in Kerala’s history.
But the icing on the cake came just a few weeks before the last Assembly elections in the state in April this year. The Left Front, especially CPM, which had unleashed a state-wide agitation against the very same Finance Minister, K.M. Mani, who is no more now, accusing him of corruption in sanctioning bar licences culminating in violence inside the Assembly, changed plate by giving him a clean chit and even allotted a decent sum in the budget to erect a memorial in his name. All because his son Jose K. Mani, who had inherited the party Kerala Congress (M) after his father’s death, had deserted the Congress-led United Front and joined the Left Front. It goes without saying that the LDF gained in the last Assembly elections by bringing the party, mainly of Catholic supporters, to its fold.
As they say, the rest is history. Working class leader Pinarayi Vijayan has fulfilled his cherished dream of becoming the first communist leader to be elected Chief Minister of Kerala for a second consecutive term. Comrades argue in the streets of Kerala that the re-election of Pinarayi Vijayan is also in a way in the interest of the public. No wonder CPM has decided to fight it out at the trial court. The Politburo has put its stamp of approval on it. But couldn’t the party avoid all those expenses at the very beginning? No one is answering the question. Instead, more money will be spent from the exchequer. God save the Kerala taxpayer.