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SC junks JMM case verdict, lawmakers lose shield against bribery

Source: PTI   -  Edited By: Hemant Waje
Last updated on: March 04, 2024 19:08 IST
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MPs and MLAs taking bribe to vote or make a speech inside the legislature are not immune from prosecution, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a landmark verdict overturning its 1998 judgment, and said bribery and corruption by lawmakers "erode the foundation" of Indian Parliamentary democracy. 

Setting aside a five-judge constitution bench judgment of 1998 in the JMM bribery case, a larger bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud also said corruption and bribery by MPs and MLAs eat into probity in public life.

In the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha bribery case, the Supreme Court had, by a 3:2 majority, held that lawmakers have immunity against criminal prosecution for any speech made and vote cast inside the House under Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Constitution.

In a unanimous judgment on Monday, a seven-judge bench held that Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution, which deal with the powers and privileges of MPs and MLAs in Parliament and legislative assemblies, seek to sustain an environment in which debate and deliberation can take place within the legislature.


"This purpose is destroyed when a member is induced to vote or speak in a certain manner because of an act of bribery," said the bench, also comprising Justices AS Bopanna, MM Sundresh, PS Narasimha, JB Pardiwala, Sanjay Kumar and Manoj Misra.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the verdict in a post on X.

"SWAGATAM! A great judgment by the Hon'ble Supreme Court which will ensure clean politics and deepen people's faith in the system," he said.

In its 135-page verdict which was penned by the CJI, the bench said, "An individual member of the legislature cannot assert a claim of privilege to seek immunity under Articles 105 and 194 from prosecution on a charge of bribery in connection with a vote or speech in the legislature".

It said such a claim to immunity fails to fulfil the two-fold test that the claim is tethered to the collective functioning of the House and that it is necessary to the discharge of the essential duties of a legislator.

The apex court said bribery is not rendered immune under Article 105(2) and the corresponding provision of Article 194 because a member engaging in bribery commits a crime which is not essential to the casting of the vote or the ability to decide on how the vote should be cast.

"The same principle applies to bribery in connection with a speech in the House or a Committee," the court said, adding, "Corruption and bribery by members of the legislatures erode probity in public life".

It said the offence of bribery is "agnostic" to the performance of the agreed action and crystallises on the exchange of illegal gratification.

"It does not matter whether the vote is cast in the agreed direction or if the vote is cast at all. The offence of bribery is complete at the point in time when the legislator accepts the bribe," it said.

In 1998, a five-judge bench in the PV Narasimha Rao versus CBI case, also known as JMM bribery scandal, had granted immunity from prosecution to a member of parliament or legislature who has allegedly engaged in bribery for casting a vote or speaking in House under Articles 105(2) and 194(2).

The seven-judge bench held the interpretation which has been placed on the issue in question in the judgment of the majority in PV Narasimha Rao case verdict results in a "paradoxical outcome" where a legislator is conferred with immunity when they accept a bribe and follow through by voting in the agreed direction.

"On the other hand, a legislator who agrees to accept a bribe, but eventually decides to vote independently will be prosecuted. Such an interpretation is contrary to the text and purpose of Articles 105 and 194," the court said while striking down the 1998 verdict.

The bench said Articles 105 and 194 seek to create a fearless atmosphere in which debate, deliberations and exchange of ideas can take place within the Houses of Parliament and state legislatures.

It said for this exercise to be meaningful, members and persons who have a right to speak before the House or any committee must be free from fear or favour induced into them by a third party.

"Members of the legislature and persons involved in the work of the committees of the legislature must be able to exercise their free will and conscience to enrich the functions of the House. This is exactly what is taken away when a member is induced to vote in a certain way not because of their belief or position on an issue but because of a bribe taken by the member," it said.

"Corruption and bribery of members of the legislature erode the foundation of Indian Parliamentary democracy. It is destructive of the aspirational and deliberative ideals of the Constitution and creates a polity which deprives citizens of a responsible, responsive and representative democracy," the bench said.

It also dealt with the doctrine of 'stare decisis' which says court should not lightly dissent from precedent.

The bench said this doctrine is not an "inflexible rule of law" and a larger bench of the apex court may reconsider a previous decision in appropriate cases, bearing in mind the tests which have been formulated in the precedents of this court.

"The judgment of the majority in PV Narasimha Rao (supra), which grants immunity from prosecution to a member of the legislature who has allegedly engaged in bribery for casting a vote or speaking has wide ramifications on public interest, probity in public life and parliamentary democracy. There is a grave danger of this court allowing an error to be perpetuated if the decision were not reconsidered," it said.

The bench said unlike the House of Commons in the UK, India does not have "ancient and undoubted" privileges which were vested after a struggle between Parliament and the King.

"Privileges in pre-independence India were governed by statute in the face of a reluctant colonial government. The statutory privilege transitioned to a constitutional privilege after the commencement of the Constitution," it said.

The court said whether a claim to privilege in a particular case conforms to the parameters of the Constitution is amenable to judicial review.

The bench said the jurisdiction which is exercised by a competent court to prosecute a criminal offence and the authority of the House to take action for a breach of discipline in relation to the acceptance of a bribe by a member of the legislature exist in distinct spheres.

"The scope, purpose and consequences of the court exercising jurisdiction in relation to a criminal offence and the authority of the House to discipline its members are different," it said.

"The potential of misuse against individual members of the legislature is neither enhanced nor diminished by recognizing the jurisdiction of the court to prosecute a member of the legislature who is alleged to have indulged in an act of bribery," the bench said.

The apex court said while analysing the reasoning of the majority and minority in PV Narasimha Rao case verdict, it has independently adjudicated on all the aspects of the controversy namely, whether by virtue of Articles 105 and 194 a Member of Parliament or the legislative assembly, as the case may be, can claim immunity from prosecution on a charge of bribery in a criminal court.

"We disagree with and overrule the judgment of the majority on this aspect," it said.

"The expressions 'anything' and 'any' must be read in the context of the accompanying expressions in Articles 105(2) and 194(2). The words 'in respect of' means 'arising out of' or 'bearing a clear relation to' and cannot be interpreted to mean anything which may have even a remote connection with the speech or vote given," the bench held.

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Source: PTI  -  Edited By: Hemant Waje© Copyright 2024 PTI. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of PTI content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent.