Can a legislative chamber be used for purposes other than the sittings of the House? Does the chamber have a certain sanctity, as the seat of the highest representative body in the state, which is inviolable? These questions have arisen in the backdrop of a meeting of the Haryana assembly, which was addressed by Jain religious leader, Tarun Sagar, on August 26. Media reports say that the monk who appeared in the nude was seated on a dais above the seat of the governor and speaker. The address by the venerable monk marked the beginning of the monsoon session of the Haryana Vidhan Sabha.
Apart from the questions of sanctity and propriety, the address by the religious leader in the Vidhan Sabha chamber raises serious constitutional questions as well. Under the Constitution of India, only the governor is authorised to address the legislative houses. According to Article 175, the governor can address either House of the state legislature or both the Houses assembled together. The governor also makes a customary address to the members of the legislature at the commencement of the first session of the year. No other authority or individual can address the legislature when it is meeting in the Vidhan Sabha chamber. The only exception to this practice is when the President of India addresses the members in the assembly chamber when he is on a visit to the state. But then the President of India is the head of the state and a part of Parliament. The Haryana Vidhan Sabha was summoned by the governor to meet in the Vidhan Sabha chamber for its monsoon session. So, the constitutional provisions and the rules of the House do not permit it to be addressed by anyone who is not constitutionally authorised to do so.
The chamber of a legislature is not permitted for use for any other purpose, even during the recess. In all democratic countries, a legislative chamber is treated as a place of great sanctity and, therefore, is not put to any other use. The traditions of Indian Parliament are very instructive in this respect. The opening ceremony of Parliament house was performed on January 18, 1927 by Governor-General Lord Irwin. On this occasion he read out a message from the British king: “As our eyes or thoughts rest upon this place, let us pray that this council house may endure through the centuries down, which time travels towards eternity and that through all the differences of passing days, men of every race and class and creed may here unite in a single high resolve to guide India to fashion her future well.” The British king was, with poetic flourish, emphasising the grandeur and sanctity of the building which houses the highest legislature of the country. The sanctity of the chamber was given the highest degree of recognition through rule 384 of the rules of procedure of the Lok Sabha which says
“The Chamber of the House shall not be used for any purpose other than the sittings of the house.”
There is an unbroken convention going back to the days of colonial rule of not using this chamber for any purpose other than the sittings of the House. In 1921, when the Central Legislative Assembly functioned in the old secretariat in Delhi — where the Delhi Vidhan Sabha functions today — the speaker had given clear instructions that the chamber and the rooms of the assembly should not be used for any other purposes. The chamber is not even photographed or filmed. In 1932, for example, a request to film the Central Legislative Assembly on the occasion of the viceroy’s address was refused. Making sketches of the chamber is also not allowed. All this points to the fact that a legislative chamber has, historically, been seen as a place of great sanctity. This practice is followed by all the assemblies. In fact, when state legislatures do not have a rule on a particular matter, they follow the Lok Sabha rules on that matter.
The Haryana episode is perhaps the first of its kind where the assembly members were addressed by a “stranger” in the Vidhan Sabha chamber. No other state legislature’s chamber has ever been used for such an event. This is not to suggest that the members of the assembly should not be exposed to such soul-elevating discourses. The government could, in fact, build an auditorium or a convention hall alongside the Vidhan Sabha Bhawan where eminent religious leaders can address the members. But “strangers” entering the Vidhan Sabha and addressing the members has serious constitutional implications. The legislature is a proud symbol of the sovereignty of the nation. Its purity, sanctity and integrity can’t be preserved and protected if we are ignorant or careless about the historic traditions which give it pride of place in our constitutional set-up. The Haryana incident should remain an exception. It should not be imitated by others.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Stranger in the assembly’)