Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar recently made waves when he raised the issue of the judiciary allegedly encroaching into the legislature’s domain. In his first address to the Rajya Sabha as its Chairman, he said that the legislature, the judiciary and the executive should work in tandem stay in their respective domain. He added, “Any incursion by one, howsoever subtle, in the domain of the other, has the potential to upset the governance apple cart.”
In the history of Indian democracy, the constitutional crisis in Uttar Pradesh in 1964 is one of the earliest examples of a confrontation between the judiciary and the legislature that led to the “derailment” of the “governance apple cart”.
It started with Keshav Singh, a political worker from Gorakhpur, and two of his colleagues publishing a pamphlet in which they made corruption allegations against a Congress MLA. They then distributed the leaflet in and around the UP Legislative Assembly in Lucknow. The legislator complained to Madan Mohan Verma, the Assembly Speaker, that the pamphlet breached his rights and privileges as a legislator. The Speaker then referred the matter to the privileges committee, which recommended that the House reprimand Keshav Singh and his associates.
While his colleagues came to the Legislative Assembly and apologised, Keshav Singh expressed his inability to reach the legislature for lack of funds. As a result, the Assembly issued warrants for Singh’s arrest. But he made quite a scene, first lying down on the platform at Lucknow railway station and then resisting the marshals’ attempts to bring him to the bar of the House. That was not all: when he was carried into the Assembly, he turned his back on Speaker Verma and refused to identify himself. Singh also exacerbated the matter by writing to the Speaker, stating that the Assembly acted tyrannically by issuing a warrant for his arrest.
The issue escalated from breach of privilege of an MLA to contempt of the UP Legislative Assembly. The Constitution provides the legislature exclusive jurisdiction to deal with contempt and breach of privilege. Therefore, the UP Assembly passed a resolution sending Keshav Singh to Lucknow jail for seven days. But the matter did not end there. Five days passed without any developments, and on the sixth, a lawyer petitioned the Allahabad High Court for Keshav Singh’s release on bail.
The petition was listed before a division bench of Justice Mirza Nasir Ullah Beg and Justice Gursaran Das Sahgal. Justice Beg, who studied law at Oxford, had adorned the bench for over a decade. Justice Sahgal, on the other hand, was a newcomer, and had been appointed an additional judge less than a year earlier. After lunch, the two judges heard the case and ordered Keshav Singh’s release. The order was mechanical as just a few years ago, the Supreme Court had ruled that a legislature’s privilege trumped fundamental rights.
The UP Assembly did not appreciate the judiciary’s interference in its affairs. Two days after the High Court order, the Assembly discussed the matter at length. It passed a resolution that Justice Beg and Sahgal had committed contempt of the House and be brought before it. Not everyone was in favour of the resolution —126 MLAs voted for and 16 against it. One of them who voted against the resolution was Kamlapati Tripathi, a senior government minister, and later UP CM. It was a first for the country, where the legislature and the judiciary were on a collision course. The administration was in a quandary: arresting the judges would result in contempt of the court, and not doing so would be contempt of the legislature.
The ball was now in the judiciary’s court. Justice Beg and Sahgal approached the High Court stating that the Assembly had committed contempt of the court by summoning them. The High Court upped the ante by deciding that a bench of 28 judges would hear the petition. The idea was that the legislature could not arrest all 28 judges for contempt.
With the conflict getting out of hand, there was a meeting of Chief Minister Sucheta Kriplani, the High Court Chief Justice, the law minister and the advocate general of UP. The Assembly then softened its stance.
Meanwhile, the Union government headed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stepped in. It recommended to President Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan that he refer the matter to the Supreme Court for its opinion. This action temporarily diffused the situation. A few months later, the apex court, in a 4:1 judgement, decided that the high court judges were correct in ordering the release of Keshav Singh.
The dissenting Supreme Court judge summed up the entire episode stating that the “… result of the order of the Hon’ble Judges was to interfere with a perfectly legitimate action of the Assembly in a case where interference was not justifiable and was certainly avoidable. On the other hand, the Assembly could have also avoided the crisis by practising restraint and not starting proceedings against the Judges at once.”
This episode is a case study about respect for institutional boundaries something the judiciary and the legislature should keep in mind while upholding the Constitution.
As for Keshav Singh, the court sent him back to jail for the remaining one day as ordered by the Assembly.
The writer is head of outreach at PRS Legislative Research