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War of Words

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Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla’s directive to chairpersons of parliamentary panels not to take up issues for examination which are pending in courts has led to much debate, but rules do prohibit this

By Vivek K Agnihotri

Recently, Facebook was subjected to tough questioning by members of the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology. As proceedings of parliamentary committees are covered by parliamentary privilege, very little information was forthcoming on the actual exchanges that had taken place. However, the barbs exchanged in the build-up to the meeting have caught the attention of procedural purists.

A war of words among parliamentarians is a legitimate offensive. It is fought with no offence meant. That is what all parliaments do the world over. So it came as no surprise when BJP MP Nishikant Dubey wrote to Om Birla, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, demanding that the meeting on suspension of internet services in various states and the Union Territory of J&K on September 1 be cancelled since the matter was sub judice.

Dubey’s letter came a day after the Speaker had issued an advisory to the chairpersons of House panels to adhere to rules while conducting meetings and not take up any matter that is sub judice or related to national security, and to ensure confidentiality of the proceedings.

Dubey had in an earlier letter to the Speaker demanded removal of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor as chairman of the Standing Committee on Information Technology for allegedly “flouting” rules. He had accused Tharoor of going public with the decision to summon Facebook executives without first discussing it in the committee meeting. The issue under consideration was a report in The Wall Street Journal that a top executive of the company in India had “opposed applying hate-speech rules” to BJP-linked individuals and groups, citing business imperatives.

In his letter on August 25, 2020, the Speaker had drawn the attention of chairpersons to Direction 55 of “Directions by the Speaker”, which said that the proceedings of a committee shall be treated as confidential and it shall not be permissible for a member of the committee or anyone who has access to its proceedings to communicate, directly or indirectly, to give the press any information regarding its proceedings, including its report or any conclusions arrived at, finally or tentatively, before its report has been presented to the House.

The Speaker, reportedly, also invited the attention of chairpersons of standing committees and MPs to the fact that committees don’t take up those subjects for examination where the issue is pending in courts.

From the polemics reported above, three points emerge for consideration. First, is there a rule which prohibits parliamentary committees, particularly department-related parliamentary standing committees, from taking up matters which are sub judice? Secondly, can the chairperson of a standing committee decide suo motu the matter to be taken up by the committee for consideration? Finally, what is the relevance of Rule 270 of the Lok Sabha Rules to this controversy?

The short answer to the first question is “No”. There is no specific rule which prohibits a standing committee from taking up any matter of public interest for consideration. According to Rule 331E of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha and the corresponding Rule 270 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), the functions of department-related standing committees inter alia (among other things) comprise consideration of demands for grants of various ministries and departments; examination of government Bills referred to them by the presiding officers of the two Houses; consideration of annual reports of ministries/ departments and consideration of the long-term policy documents referred to them. The only prohibition is that they shall not consider matters of day-to-day administration of ministries/departments. As a matter of convention, the standing committees also do not generally consider matters which are under consideration of other parliamentary committees.

However, the rules do prohibit reference to sub judice matters, inter alia, in admission of parliamentary questions. Thus, Rule 41 (2) (xviii) of the Lok Sabha Rules and Rule 47 (2)(xix) of the Rajya Sabha Rules prescribe that a question “shall not ask for information on a matter which is under adjudication by a court of law having jurisdiction in any part of India”. Further, Rule 58 (vii) of the Lok Sabha Rules, relating to restrictions on moving an adjournment motion, too states that the motion shall not deal with any matter which is under adjudication by a court of law having jurisdiction in any part of India.

Prohibition on moving motions, resolutions, etc., on a matter which is under adjudication by a court of law also exists in Rules 173 (v) and 186 (viii) of the Lok Sabha Rules and Rules 157(v)169 (viii), and 180B (vi) of the Rajya Sabha Rules. Thus, the Speaker’s contention that as a matter of convention, the committees do not take those subjects for examination where the issue is pending in the courts is valid.

Experts, reportedly, say that there have been a number of instances in the past when matters subject to judicial review came up for discussions in parliamentary panels. 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. However, there can be no doubt that in case of a dispute among the members on this issue, the matter has to be referred to the Speaker whose decision would be final. So the ruling of the Speaker in the present case, buttressed by the doctrine of separation of powers, will stand.

That takes us to the remaining two issues, namely, whether the chairperson of a standing committee can suo motu decide the agenda for the committee meeting and the relevance of Rule 270 of the Lok Sabha Rules. This Rule of the Lok Sabha Rules states that if any question arises whether the evidence of a person or the production of a document is relevant for the purposes of the Committee, the question shall be referred to the Speaker, whose decision shall be final. It underscores resolution of a dispute among members in a meeting of a committee.

By implication, the committee sets the agenda for its meetings. Thus, even though there is no specific provision in the rules enjoining the chairperson to decide the agenda of the committee in consultation with the members, it is up to him to do so. And that is the relevance of reference to Rule 270 by the Speaker in the present context, especially when the representatives of Facebook were sought to be invited to give evidence before the committee.

Although in the standing committee’s meeting on September 2, Facebook officials had a long deposition, Tharoor later said in a tweet that discussions remained inconclusive and the committee will re-congregate at a later date. Now, does this announcement of Tharoor come under the mischief of Rule 270 of the Lok Sabha Rules and the Speaker’s Direction 55?

—The writer was Secretary, Parliamentary Affairs from 2003-2005 and Secretary General of Rajya Sabha from 2007-2012

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