SC on Tuesday stayed proceedings on a breach of privilege motion against Shobhaa De by the Maharashtra assembly. We bring you the facts.
How did Shobhaa De earn the wrath of the Maharashtra MLAs?
On April 7, De tweeted her reaction to the Maharashtra government’s decision to block a daily mandatory prime time slot in multiplexes for a Marathi film: “Devendra ‘Diktatwala’ Fadnavis is at it again!!!From beef to movies. This is not the Maharashtra we all love! Nako!Nako! Yeh sab roko!” In subsequent tweets, she described the move as “dadagiri”, and added witticisms about the cinemagoers’ staple of popcorn being replaced by dahi misal and vada pav.
Shiv Sena MLA from Thane Pratap Sarnaik took umbrage at what he saw as an insult to Maharashtra, and filed a notice of breach of privilege of legislature. De responded on Twitter, calling herself a proud Maharashtrian who loves Marathi films.
The following day, several dozen Sena and RPI workers reached De’s South Mumbai home bearing platters of misal and vada pav, shouting slogans and jostling at police barricades. A couple of days later, De received the breach of privilege motion notice from the legislature secretariat.
What constitutes a breach of the legislature’s privilege?
Any violation of the privileges or immunities of MPs/MLAs amounts to a breach of privilege. According to Article 105 of the Constitution, these powers include freedom of speech in Parliament, freedom from any proceedings in court for anything said in Parliament or in any parliamentary committee. Article 194 provides the same privileges to the state legislatures and their members and committees.
According to former Lok Sabha secretary-general and Constitution expert Subhash Kashyap, anything that obstructs the functioning or is in contempt of the House, its committees or members, is breach of privilege.
De has been accused of insulting the legislature and the state. The ‘Notice of Violation of Rights’ issued under Maharashtra Legislature Rule 273 said she often makes “volatile statements”, has “teased” the chief minister in her tweets, and insulted the Marathi language, people and the state legislature.
De was required to reply by Tuesday. What has she said?
De has moved the Supreme Court, where her counsel C A Sundaram has submitted that her tweets “do not remotely affect” the privilege of the assembly, that as a citizen of India she has a right to express her views and opinion, and that while they may be comments on the government, they do not affect the legislature’s privilege.
Is this only point-scoring by Sena, or could De face serious action?
The Supreme Court has imposed an interim stay on the notice, and issued notice to the principal secretary of the legislature secretariat, seeking a reply within eight weeks. Meanwhile, MLA Sarnaik has told PTI that the assembly Speaker too had found his objections valid, and the fact that De went to the Supreme Court only showed her distrust of the Maharashtra legislature. The legislature secretariat has not said if it will seek legal opinion on the SC’s stay.
Which other famous personalities have been accused of breach of privilege?
Several, from P V Narasimha Rao to Mumbai dance-bar owner Manjit Singh Sethi to former ambassador Ronen Sen. The House may summon the offender, issue a stern warning, or send him/her to prison. Sethi was sentenced to 90 days’ imprisonment for statements made after the ban on dance bars. The CEO of a prominent private hospital was issued a warning by the Maharashtra Legislative Council for allegedly behaving rudely with a team of MLCs. Sen, whose use of the words “headless chickens” in the context of opposition to the nuclear deal was deemed offensive, was absolved by the Lok Sabha privileges committee, and the matter was closed.
Kashyap himself faced a breach of privilege motion in 2006 over comments about the then Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. He appeared before the Privileges Committee, but refused to appear before the Lok Sabha. He was admonished in absentia.