One may wonder if these small cases are worth even a mention, especially in the face of far graver cases of extra judicial killings, fake encounters and other forms of subversion of the rule of law being so much common. After all, we are a country where an act as innocuous as going to shop for grocery has its own dangers and instead of returning home, the shopper can become a part of dry, bone-chilling statistics maintained by the government departments, the statistics that deals with death by bomb explosions, in shoot-outs, in road rage cases or in riots.
These cases, however, are no ordinary cases. All of them had lawmakers controlling the destiny of Indian citizenry both as victims and culprits. The person attacked in the first case was Jayaprakash Narayan, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Andhra Pradesh belonging to the Lok Satta party, whereas the attackers were MLAs belonging to Telangana Rashtra Samiti. In the second case, the person attacked was Abu Asim Azmi, an MLA of Maharashtra, while the attackers were his fellow MLAs belonging to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. In the third, the one charging was Amar Singh while the one attacked was S S Ahluwalia, both of them members of Rajy Sabha, upper house of the Indian parliament.
Unfortunately, these are not stand alone cases; the level of intolerance is going up in legislative bodies of India for quite some time. The democratic system has reached its nadir way back on 21st October 1997, when MLAs of Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha had created a pandemonium and turned the assembly in a war zone. Many MLAs were injured in that violence, some seriously and even women members were assaulted by the warring parties, the opposition and the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party and the motley crowd of its turncoat supporters. Parliament has seen its own share of such shameful incidents including one when two of its members named Prabhunath Singh and Sadhu Yadav abused each other and came close to fisticuffs on 24th August, 2006 and the situation could be contained only with the timely intervention of some other members.
The irony is that the Indian democratic system, for all its failures, has worked fairly well at least in maintaining high standards in engaging in its business of law-making and succeeded in keeping the chaos out on the streets from entering the parliamentary system till recently. For the most part of last 60 years of its existence, it has restrained its members from taking recourse to violence inside its premises and has compelled even those with criminal backgrounds to behave well. The system has ensured that the criminals do not find any place in the high politics of state even if they enter legislative owing to exigencies of first past the post system of elections.
Mostly, this shunning of the criminals and the embarrassment of being associated with them has made an immense contribution in saving India meeting the fate of other democracies of the region namely, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. And, this has, in turn, saved India joining that bad league of being a failed state.
The problem, however, is the impunity with which the perpetrators of the recent cases of violence have escaped prosecution and punishment. And even in cases where punishments have been meted out, they have been highly toned down, ending up as being no punishment at all. For example, the MNS legislators who assaulted Azmi were merely suspended from the Vidhan Sabha for four years and no criminal cases were initiated against them. Similarly, the culprits of UP assembly violence went scot-free, even after a one-member commission of inquiry headed by Justice A B Srivastava that was constituted to look into the issue submitted its report.
No democracy can function without rule of law and it is bound to collapse if the lawmakers take to lawlessness themselves. Further, the rule of law cannot be applied differently to different people based on their status or whatever other criterion. In this respect, if a legislator gets away for a committing a crime like assaulting someone, a crime which could have sent a ‘commoner’ to jail, it is bound to make people lose faith in the system. A democracy cannot treat its own people differently and that is why it becomes essential to act for ensuring justice in these cases.
Failing to nip this trend in the bud will make the future of democracy bleak in a country that has 153 members (out of the total strength of 545) of its parliament tainted with criminal records as per their own affidavits submitted to the Election Commission. The fact that 74 of these 153 have serious criminal charges including rape, murder and gang war make the threat even worse.
It is imperative, therefore, that criminal cases be initiated against such legislators under Indian Penal Code, instead of shielding them under the archaic provisions of the ‘Privileges’ accorded to members of legislative assemblies. These privileges were to ensure that the legislative bodies could function independently and not for giving them sweeping freedom to indulge in whatever they want. This is also time to act on the recommendations of the Justice Achal Behari Srivastava committee seeking statutory code of conduct to inculcate discipline in the MLAs and making the Representation of People's Act more powerful so that action could be taken against erring legislators.
After all, physically assaulting someone cannot be part of the ‘privilege’ of the legislators, can it?