Ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla has written to chairpersons of parliamentary committees, urging that the panels should not take “those subjects for examination where the issue is pending in the courts”.
The August 25 letter has led to a debate among MPs and experts who say there have been a number of instances in the past in which matters subject to judicial review came up for discussions in parliamentary panels, and this new directive will set an unusual precedent.
Veterans who have headed key panels point out that parliamentary committees are an extension of Parliament itself and the fundamental rule — Parliament is supreme — stands true for the committees as well.
“In fact, committees are more liberal than Parliament,” M Veerappa Moily, who headed a number of panels earlier, told The Indian Express. K V Thomas, former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said the Speaker never interfered in the functioning of standing committees in the past.
“The issue of sub judice is an outdated idea. There are a number of issues in the courts. How can parliamentary panels avoid discussing them? The legislature only has power giving capacity and Parliament is supreme. Committees are a forum for discussions, and it works on a non-political basis. In fact, it’s more liberal than Parliament. So this directive of the Speaker is not concrete nor preventive,” Moily said.
Subhash Kashyap, former secretary general of Lok Sabha and a constitutional expert, pointed out that the Speaker holds the power to issue directives to parliamentary panels, but “it usually does not happen, and the Speaker does not interfere with the working of the committees”.
“The general rule is that a sub judice matter is not taken up in Parliament, but it’s a matter on which there is no clear-cut stand. There are matters in which the legislature is not restrained by a sub judice matter. There are exceptions to the rule of sub judice. I do not know what were the compelling circumstances that the Speaker has taken this decision,” Kashyap said.
PDT Achary, former secretary general of Lok Sabha, said: “This rule of sub judice is not an absolute rule. This is in the nature of a self-imposed restriction by the House… So far as sub judice rule is concerned, this is something that the House has imposed on itself. But as far as the committee is concerned, there is no such rule.”
“There is no mention of sub judice matter so far as the committees are concerned. Even a sub judice matter can be waived. There is a rule in the rulebook under which any rule can be suspended by the House, including the rule of sub judice, in order to enable the House to discuss a matter,” Achary said.
Parliamentary standing committees have, on a number of occasions in the past, taken up issues, pending before courts, for deliberation.
* For example, the parliamentary standing committee on coal and steel had taken up the coal block allocation scandal in October 2012 when the matter was already in the Supreme Court after a PIL was filed. The PIL came up for preliminary hearing in the Supreme Court on September 14, 2012. The standing committee submitted its report on “Review of Allotment, Development and Performance of Coal/Lignite Blocks” on April 23, 2013.
* 2G spectrum: A PIL on alleged irregularities in allocation and pricing of second generation spectrum licences during 1998-2009 was filed in the Supreme Court on December 14, 2010, seeking cancellation of new telecom licences and 2G spectrum allocated during the tenure of Telecom minister A Raja. The BJP-led Opposition’s clamour for a Joint Parliamentary Committee disrupted proceedings in at least two sessions in 2010. A 30-member JPC was constituted in February 2011. The report was tabled in the winter session of 2013.
* PNB scandal: The parliamentary standing committee on finance took up the Punjab National Bank scandal while preparing its report on the ‘Banking Sector in India — Issues, Challenges and the way forward including Non-Performing Assets/Stressed Assets in Banks/Financial Institutions’. The report was submitted to the Speaker in August 2018. The committee questioned finance ministry officials about the alleged fraud in PNB and asked them to submit a report on it while the matter was still in court. Moily, who was chairman of the committee, said: “We took up the matter when it was already in the court. It did not stop the committee from discussing it.”
* AgustaWestland deal: The PAC took up the matter of the AgustaWestland helicopter deal in 2018 when it was already in the Supreme Court. “We decided to take up the matter while the court was dealing with it. Not just this one… during my tenure, the PAC had taken up a number of issues such as the Mumbai airport land scam and the KG Basin issue while the matters were with the judiciary,” Thomas told The Indian Express.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, current chairman of PAC, said committees have taken up issues already in court. “There are many issues which are in court. Even CAG reports… even before it is tabled in Parliament… we have seen how the Opposition talks about it. The report comes later to Parliament and then comes to PAC,” he said, adding he has “nothing against the Speaker”.
“There are many rules. And it would be ideal if all committees function, according to and as per rules. But often, it does not happen. I am not saying that it is right. We should go according to rules. But hota nahin hai. What the Speaker said is right. If everyone follows it, it is good. But na sarkar maante hain na vipaksh (neither the government nor the Opposition follows it),” Chowdhury said.
Achary differentiated between the House and the committees. “The standing committee is a recommendatory body. It can only recommend. When a matter is discussed in the House… House is a public forum. So this may influence the court. That is the presumption. But in standing committees, everything is confidential, and nobody knows what the committee discusses. So there is no chance of the committee’s deliberations influencing the court so far as a particular matter before the court is concerned,” he said.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines