Keshav Singh – Case commentary

The Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly filed a claim in 1964 to assess the scope of its constitutional authority to penalise persons who disobeyed it. This claim was made on the grounds that the Assembly’s ability to interpret the Constitution on such a matter was itself a privilege provided by the Constitution under Article 194(3) of the Constitution. The Assembly attempted to enforce this claim by ordering the arrest and detention of two Allahabad High Court Judges because they had heard Keshav Singh’s Habeas Corpus petition and had issued an interim order of release on bail after the petitioner had been arrested on a warrant issued by the Speaker of the Assembly and sent to prison. The petitioner complained to the High Court that the Legislative Assembly had gone beyond its constitutional authority in punishing the petitioner’s contempt. Keshav Singh’s Habeas Corpus petition sought that the President bring many concerns of grave constitutional concern to the Supreme Court of India. Before the Allahabad High Court could decide on Keshav Singh’s case, the Supreme Court had to answer these questions.

INTRODUCTION

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND AND FACTS OF THE CASE

  • Keshav Singh was a resident of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.  He was a worker of the Socialist Party, an opposition party of ‘Much Noise but Little Electoral Success’ in Uttar Pradesh.

On one occasion, He printed and published in partnership with two of his co­-workers, a pamphlet. The pamphlet “Exposing the Misdeeds of Narsingh Narain Pandey” claimed that Narsingh Narain Pandey, a Congress party MLA, was a corrupt politician. The pamphlet was signed by the three authors and circulated locally in Gorakhpur and in the region of Lucknow’s Legislative Assembly.

The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Mr.Verma, claimed that the pamphlet violated Narsingh Narain Pandey’s privilege (the rights and immunities held by the legislature and its members) and that Keshav Singh had acted in contempt of the House. Keshav Singh and his colleagues were summoned before the Lucknow assembly to face a scolding.

To obey this order, Keshav Singh would have had to travel from Gorakhpur to Lucknow by train, which would have taken several hours. Keshav Singh did not appear in front of the legislature to accept a punishment while his colleagues did, alleging a lack of funds to travel. The assembly then resolved that anything that could not be obtained peacefully would have to be obtained through force. Keshav Singh Was Arrested and brought to the Assembly. Singh had written a letter to the speaker protesting against the reprimand, confirming that the statements in the pamphlet were accurate, and condemning the warrant for his arrest as “Nadirshahi” (tyrannical).

A warrant was issued over the signature of the Speaker of the House, Mr. Verma, directing that Keshav Singh be held in the District Jail, Lucknow, for a period of seven days, and Keshav Singh was imprisoned in the Jail in execution of the warrant.

  • Mr. Solomon, an Advocate practising before the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, presented a petition to the High Court for the writ of Habeas Corpus on behalf of Keshav Singh under section 491 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, as well as under Article 226 of the Constitution.

Section 491 of the Code of Criminal Procedure – ‘Breach of contract to attend on and supply wants of helpless person.— Whoever, being bound by a lawful contract to attend on or to supply the wants of any person who, by reason of youth, or of unsoundness of mind, or of a disease or bodily weakness, is helpless or incapable of providing for his own safety or of supplying his own wants, voluntarily omits so to do, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees, or with both.’

Article 226 of the Constitution – ‘Enshrined under Part V of the Constitution of India, Article 226 confers power to the High Courts to issue orders, directions, and writs in the nature of Habeas corpus, Mandamus, Certiorari, Prohibition, and Quo Warranto in case of infringement of Fundamental Rights as well as Legal Rights.’[1]

Allahabad High Court held that-

On various reasons, the petition filed on behalf of Keshav Singh claimed that his imprisonment in jail was unconstitutional. According to the appeal, Keshav Singh was ordered to be imprisoned after receiving the reprimand, which rendered the order of imprisonment unconstitutional and without authority. The suit further claimed that Keshav Singh was not given an opportunity to defend himself and that his detention was illegal and contrary to natural justice principles. It was also his position that the respondents lacked the power to send him to the Lucknow District Jail, making his imprisonment there unconstitutional.

  • The House proceeded to take action against the two learned Judges who passed the order on Keshav Singh’s application, as well as Keshav Singh and his Advocate.

The House passed a resolution that the house was of definite view two learned Judges who passed the order on Keshav Singh’s application, as well as Keshav Singh and his Advocate had committed contempt of House, it was ordered the Keshav Singh should immediately be taken into custody and kept confined in the District Jail of Lucknow for the remaining term of his imprisonment and

both the judges and Keshav singh’s advocate should be brought in custody before the House. The resolution further added that after Keshav Singh completed the term of his imprisonment, he should be brought before the House for having again committed contempt of the House.

The two learned Judges rushed to the Allahabad High Court with separate petitions under Art. 226 of the Constitution. These petitions claimed that the House Resolution was completely unlawful and violated the Constitution’s Art. 211. According to the petitions, Keshav Singh’s plea under Art. 226 was competent, and the Judges were exercising their jurisdiction and authority as High Court Judges under Art. 226 by issuing an order freeing Keshav Singh. Their argument was that the House resolution amounted to contempt of court, and that because it was totally without authority, it should be set aside and its implementation stopped by an interim order.

Article 211 of Constitution – ‘No discussion shall take place in the Legislature of a State with respect to the conduct of any Judge of the Supreme Court or of a High Court in the discharge of his duties.’[2]

Judgement by Allahabad High Court-

Full Bench of 28 Judges of the Allahabad High Court heard the case, an interim order was passed prohibiting the implementation of the resolution the validity of which was challenged by the petitioner.

  • The House passed a clarificatory resolution. This resolution began by expressing reservations about the House’s motion, which might be interpreted as denying the parties involved an opportunity to explain themselves, and it added that The House never intended for an allegation of breach of privilege or contempt levelled against a High Court Judge to be handled differently from a charge of breach of privilege or contempt levelled against anybody else. The House concluded that the subject of contempt may be decided once the persons mentioned in the original resolution were given an opportunity to explain themselves.

The warrants for the arrest of the two learned Judges and Mr. Solomon were withdrawn as a result of this resolution, and the two learned Judges and Mr. Solomon were ordered to appear before the House and explain why the House should not proceed against them for alleged contempt of the House.

  • When the incidents had progressed to this point, the President decided to use his powers under Article 143(1) of the Constitution to refer the matter to this Court.

Article 143(1) of Constitution-

‘Article 143- Power of President to consult Supreme Court.

  • If at any time it appears to the President that a question of law or fact has arisen, or is likely to arise, which is of such a nature and of such public importance that it is expedient to obtain the opinion of the Supreme Court upon it, he may refer the question to that Court for consideration and the Court may, after such hearing as it thinks fit, report to the President its opinion thereon.’[3]

According to the Order of Reference, the President believed that the events in question had resulted in a severe conflict between a High Court and a State Legislature, including important and complicated question of law related to the High Court’s and Judges’ rights and jurisdiction in respect to the State Legislature and its officers, as well as the State Legislature’s and members’ powers, privileges, and immunities in reference to the High Court and its Judges in the fulfilment of their duties. The President was also satisfied that the questions of law set out in his Order of Reference were of such a nature and of such public importance that it was expedient to obtain the opinion of this Court on them. That is the genesis of the present reference.

 The President has formulated five questions for the opinion of this Court under 143(1) of the Constitution-

  1. Whether the Lucknow Bench of the High Court of Uttar Pradesh was competent to deal with the petition of Mr. Keshav Singh challenging the legality of the sentence of imprisonment imposed upon him by the Legislative Assembly of Uttar Pradesh for its contempt and for infringement of its privileges and to pass orders releasing Mr. Keshav Singh on bail pending the disposal of his petition
  2. Whether there was commission of contempt of the Legislative Assembly of Uttar Pradesh by Keshav Singh for causing the petition to be presented on his behalf to the High Court of Uttar Pradesh as aforesaid, Mr. B. Soloman, Advocate, by presenting the said petition. And the said two Hon’ble Judges by entertaining and dealing with the said petition and ordering the release of Keshav Singh on bail pending disposal of the said petition.
  3. Whether the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly had the authority to order the two Hon’ble Judges and Mr. B. Soloman, Advocate, to appear before it in detention or to demand an explanation for their contempt.
  4. Whether the Full Bench of the High Court of Uttar Pradesh had jurisdiction to hear and decide the petitions of the two Hon’ble Judges and Mr. B. Solomon, Advocate, and to issue interim restraining orders against the Speaker of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly.
  5. Whether a Judge of a High Court commits contempt of the Legislature who entertains or handles with a petition contesting a legislative order or judgement imposing a penalty on the petitioner or issuing any procedure against the petitioner for contempt or infringement of its privileges and immunities, or who issues any order on such petition and if the Legislature has the authority to bring legal action against such a Judge in the exercise and enforcement of its rights, privileges, and immunities.

JUDGEMENT

The Supreme Court referred to so many cases and precedents across the world in detail and finally came to certain conclusions regarding the answers.

(a) In general, the Lucknow Bench was competent to hear Habeas Corpus petitions.

(b) There was no evidence that the filing of the petition was an illegal act, so neither the Judges nor Keshav Singh were in contempt for the filing of the petition.

(c) The House lacked the authority to charge the Judges with contempt without giving them a hearing, and they lacked the authority to order their detention.

(d) The Full Bench had the authority to issue the interim orders.

(e) A Judge who hears a person’s petition against a House order does not commit contempt of the House, nor does the House have the authority to take action against the Judge.

The petition for bail was filed in Allahabad High Court after the Supreme Court sent its suggestion to the President through the Reference.

Petitioner’s arguments

(A )The House has no criminal jurisdiction and no authority to punish anyone who disobeys it.

(B)Even if the House had such authority, the petitioner’s imprisonment is unconstitutional since it violates Article 22(2) of the Constitution.

(C)The petitioner’s conviction by the House was in breach of Articles 21 and 22(1) of the Constitution, as well as natural justice principles.

(D)On the basis of the warrant issued by the House, the Superintendent of the District Jail in Lucknow had no authority to receive and detain the petitioner.

(E)The House’s actions to punish the petitioner were ill intentioned and motivated by political animosity.

Respondent’s arguments

a. Under Article 194(3), the House has criminal jurisdiction, and because it is also a court of record, it can punish people who defy it.

b. Part III of the Constitution has no bearing on a matter brought under Article 194(3) of the Constitution; the former always gives way to the latter.

c. The petitioner’s personal liberty is taken away in accordance with the legal procedure.

d. Because there is no clear bar against a jail superintendent receiving persons sent by a competent authority other than a court of law, the jail superintendent was required by law to receive the petitioner and detain him in compliance with the Speaker’s warrant.

e. The fact that the person charged with contempt belongs to a political party other than the House’s majority party is no proof that the House acted in bad faith.

After the Supreme Court’s opinion to the President, the Allahabad High Court, going through the facts and circumstances of the petition, still dismissed it and refused to interfere with the judgment of the House. The HC turned down Keshav Singh’s contention that the facts found by the Assembly against the petitioner did not amount to contempt of the Assembly. The HC also dictated that there was neither a violation of Article 21 nor of natural justice by the respondent, since the legislature had formulated the rules to investigate complaints of breach of privileges. The HC also stated that the Superintendent of the District jail was well within his jurisdictional limits to execute the warrant received from the Speaker.

The HC said that provisions of Part III of the Constitution are not relevant to a case falling under Article 194(3) of the Constitution and reiterated that the fundamental rights in Part III yield to Article 194(3). The HC also ruled that the deprivation of the personal liberty of the petitioner is according to the procedure laid down and established by law under the latter part of Article 194(3). The petitioner had also argued that his committal by the Assembly was mala fide as the Assembly was dominated by political ill-will and hatred.  The charge of mala fides against the House could not be substantiated merely from the fact that the person charged belonged to a political party different from the majority party in the House. The HC disposed Keshav Singh’s case and refused to infer mala fides in the Assembly. The High Court held, dismissing Keshav Singh’s petition, that whether there had been contempt of the House, or not, in a particular situation, is a matter exclusively for the House to decide and the court would not go into the question of legality.

CASE COMMENTARY

The Supreme Court’s ruling is based on the belief that the three parts of the democratic state, namely the legislative, executive, and judiciary, should act in harmony and coordination. The Court stressed the importance of these three organs working together in harmony. Article 211 of the Constitution disentitles the State Legislature from discussing the conduct of a High Court Judge in the Assembly; therefore, the House cannot take any action against a High Court Jude for anything done in the discharge of his duties. 4

The Supreme Court also ruled that citizens’ right to petition the courts and advocates’ right to assist in that process should not be limited by Articles 105(3) or 194(3). The Supreme Court ruled that the House of Commons, as a supreme court of record in the land and not as a legislature, may only commit a person for contempt by a non-justifiable general warrant.Because of the existence of the Fundamental Rights and the doctrine of judicial review, particularly Articles 32 and 226, which not only empower the Supreme Court and High Courts but also impose a duty on them to enforce Fundamental Rights, Parliament and State Legislatures in India can never claim such a privilege. As a result, a court can consider an unspoken House warrant as a legislative order punishing a person for his or her contempt. The SC, through the Reference to the President, sought to acknowledge not only that the House has the power to punish for contempt or breach of its privilege; if a House claimed the right to question a judge’s conduct, judicial independence would be seriously jeopardised; but also that the House has the power to punish for contempt or breach of its privilege. Currently, the Committee on Privileges is conducting an investigation and giving the petitioner an opportunity to explain himself before making a decision.

 

CONCLUSION

This case is illustrative of the tussle of power that can occur between the Parliament and the Legislature. In this case Keshav Singh was committed to prison for committing contempt of the Uttar Pradesh assembly. Thereafter a petition was filed in the high court by an advocate alleging that the detention of Keshav Singh was illegal. Two judges of the court subsequently released Keshav Singh on bail. The Uttar Pradesh assembly then took the unprecedented step of issuing summons to the judges and the advocate who argued the case for committing contempt of the house and also ordered that Keshav Singh be immediately taken into custody. The two judges and the advocate then filed petitions before a full bench of Allahabad High Court, which ordered by notice restraining the speaker of assembly from issuing a warrant against them. When the incidents reached this stage, the president made a reference under Article 143 to the Supreme Court. The apex court upheld the verdict of the high court and held that the “judge who entertains a petition challenging any order of the legislature imposing any penalty on the petitioner for its contempt does not commit contempt of the said legislature and the legislature is not competent to initiate proceedings against that judge”.[4]

 BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Subhash C. Kashyap, PARLIAMENTARY PRIVILEGES IN INDIA, 1554 (2000)
  2. https://ccgtlr.org/2014/02/08/parliamentary-privilege/
  3. In The Matter Of: Under Article 143 … vs Unknown on 30 September, 1964 Equivalent citations: AIR 1965 SC 745
  4. http://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-576-advisory-jurisdiction-of-the-supreme-court-is-the-court-bound-to-give-its-opinion.html#:~:text=Article%20143%20of%20the%20Constitution,President%20to%20consult%20Supreme%20Court.&text=Firstly%2C%20the%20President%20may%20obtain,arisen%20or%20likely%20to%20arise.
  5. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/496247/

[1] https://blog.ipleaders.in/difference-article-32-article-226/

[2] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/496247/

[3] http://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-576-advisory-jurisdiction-of-the-supreme-court-is-the-court-bound-to-give-its-opinion.html#:~:text=Article%20143%20of%20the%20Constitution,President%20to%20consult%20Supreme%20Court.&text=Firstly%2C%20the%20President%20may%20obtain,arisen%20or%20likely%20to%20arise.

[4] https://ccgtlr.org/2014/02/08/parliamentary-privilege/

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