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Mr Speaker
by K. Sukumaran

Cite as : (1993) 4 SCC (Jour) 14

Mr Speaker has caught the public eye; in a manner unknown before.

Mr Speaker is a symbol of a lustrous wing of State. Undoubtedly so; for he is 'the official embodiment of the House'. He carries with him the sure of a hoary tradition. Respect is rightly due to that high office. In a sense the respect shown to Mr Speaker is as the head of an assemblage of the representatives of the people - those who are supreme.

The contribution made by the Speakers for nurturing healthy democratic conventions, appropriate constitutional practices and proper disciplining of thoughts is marvellous. The wakeful Speakers used to prick their ears to speeches of the Hon'ble members and preen their eyes to the Rules Book. We shall thank them for the sacrifices they made to create a majestic Parliament function flawlessly.

England has had a long procession of illustrious Speakers. In recent history we come across Speakers like Horace King who was succeeded by Selwyn Lloyd in 1971. Viscount Thonypandy is one who has chronicled the brightest and best aspects of Speakership in England. It is to the credit of the glorious tradition of that nation that even the strong Thatcher upheld the tradition of honouring the institution of Speaker overlooking party politics.1

It is said Mr Speaker represents Parliamentary privilege, and, Parliamentary privilege has its origin in Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688 which reads:

'That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not be impeached or questioned in any Court or place out of Parliament.'

Protection of this privilege depended mostly on the personality of Mr Speaker. An examination of the history of this office in England would signify this fact.

Most Speakers have been noted for their humility. One of them refers to reading Erskine May, the Parliamentary Bible, every night before he went to bed. They acknowledge the value of precedent, something which guides and controls the thought processes of judges as well.

Many Speakers had to reckon with unhappy brushes with eminent members. (Members deplore Churchill's unhappy brushes with Speaker Clifton Brown). Brown had another misfortune as well of almost being arrested by a German Military Guard. Sir Norman Birkett, the English judge who was member of the Nuremburg Trial at the time arranged a party to all Parliamentary delegations in honour of Brown, but forgot to include his name among the list of guests. No one made it a point to raise a Privilege Issue either against the host or the soldier at his post.

A sense of humour quite often takes away a sting in a statement or the bitterness of an attack. Once, when a member in the opposite side was found vigorously shaking his head, an honourable member loudly interjected: ''Don't shake your head; I can hear it''. No Privilege Motion was drafted pointing out the implication of the remark, about a member being a zero. Such was, however, the reaction in Kerala, when in his characteristically ruthless manner a civilian Judge of the High Court, in the course of judicial proceedings in which he had the insularity of an immunity, made a remark about the elected members lacking and lagging in information and knowledge. Restraint and dignity lavishly displayed by those in charge of the situation averted an unhappy conflict.

This loose and disjunctive miscellany on Mr Speaker and the Parliament may indicate the importance of the multifaceted personality of the Speaker. There have been numerous occasions when occupants of the Chair have accepted their differing roles. This writer had, as government pleader occasion to defend an order of the Kerala Speaker on a service question of the Members of the Legislative Secretariat. The principles applied and the processing done were similar to exercises routinely carried on in other departments. The stand of the Speaker was upheld by the Court. It is my feeling that a different (and adverse) verdict would not have unduly upset him. The largest democracy recently faced a crisis centering around a Speaker. Every earnest citizen should heave a heavy sigh of relief when the gathering storm has blown over.

On the day when the trauma ended, some remarked in the corridors of the Apex Court that the Speaker was not treated like a contemnor, that he was seated all the while when the matter was taken up and the like. That precisely is the dignified grace of the judicial institution. The Chief Justice remarked that it was a 'White Day' for all concerned. That sagacious statement has many implications - much more than superficially seen.

There are very many who desire clear signals and larger sign posts. Hurry up with them. Was it not something we procrastinated ever since the advent of the Constitution? In England, the Parliament acted firmly instead of talking loosely, it changed recently what it felt to be obsolescent rules. It passed a resolution on October 31, 1980. It was unnecessary thereafter to file petitions for leave to produce Hansard as evidence in Courts of what had taken place in Parliament. The reaction and response of the Court in respect of the precious Parliamentary Privilege was significant in showing the respect due to Parliament. Under the Judicial exposition, no further action could be taken of comments placed on such proceedings in the Parliament. Any one who cares to study closely the case law and Constitutional history would get the message - it is the institutional (as contrasted with individual) interest that is sought to be protected.

It is the spirit of mutual respect and genuine regard for each other that will ensure the steadying of the Ship of State. While it is cruising through unchartered waters and amidst encircling gloom no one can afford to burn the deck recklessly.

All is well that ends well. The height of glory is measured by the restraint shown and the willingness to submit to the highest legal authority. No better advice can be found than in the wise counsel of one who occupied the Chair in the most ancient Parliament, for seven long years, and under different political governments:

''... it was not for the Speaker of the House of Commons to rule what was contempt of court and what was not; that was a matter for Courts alone''2.

† Former Judge, High Courts of Bombay and Kerala Return to Text

  1. Thonypandy despite his earlier Labour affiliation was allowed to continue as Speaker, unopposed Return to Text
  2. "Mr Speaker": The Memoires of Viscount Return to Text
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