What rule did the Kerala Speaker choose to misinterpret to protect his secretary from Customs?
The 22nd session of the current Kerala Legislative Assembly will start tomorrow, and the state budget will be presented on January 15. While everything is as per schedule, the session will begin with controversies surrounding Assembly Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan. He had told media persons today that he will take reasonable action on a notice filed by the opposition demanding his removal. Adding that the notice is as per protocol, he said that it would be taken for discussion.
In the last few days, the Customs department had called the Speaker's Assistant Private Secretary K Ayyappan for questioning concerning the Dollar smuggling case. However, the latter evaded the meet claiming that he wasn’t given an official notice. The second time, Ayyappan explained that he is busy with a hectic schedule ahead of the upcoming legislative sessions. In a letter to the investigative department, the Assembly secretary had explained that the Customs would require the permission of the Speaker to question a staff member. However, the opposition had lashed out against the claim, saying that it only extends to MLAs and not to employees.
The strongest criticism is that the Assembly Secretary had misrepresented the rule to protect a staff member. Rule 165 state, “A legal process, civil or criminal, shall not be served within the precincts of the Assembly without obtaining the permission of the Speaker.” While it doesn’t explicitly mention the fact that it is limited to MLAs, the section under which it exists concern the questions of privilege concerning a member of the assembly, and thus the rules naturally associate with the members. However, twisting the minimal space in the language, the Speaker claims that “since it is not explicitly claimed that it is for the members, the rule can also be applied to the assembly staff as well”.
However, according to Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala, the Speaker’s interpretation is not right as there is an earlier ruling saying that the privilege doesn’t extend to staff. In 1970, following a protest by some government officers, the police had arrested a few of them from the Assembly grounds. The then Assembly Speaker TS John ruled that the incident doesn’t come under breach of privilege since they are not elected members of the assembly. It was on Rule 164 — ‘No arrest shall be made within the precincts of the Assembly without obtaining the permission of the Speaker — and extending it to Rule 165.’
His interpretation of the rule allowed the Speaker enough control over when, where, and how the Customs department can question Ayyappan. Even though he claims that his intention was not to interrupt the investigation, his efforts saw exactly that. However, in their latest letter to the latter, the Customs Department claims that they don’t need the Speaker’s permission to question his Private Secretary.
While the Speaker had claimed that he had nothing to hide, Chennithala asks him as to why he is not cooperating with the investigation to bring about the truth. “The Speaker claims that he is not afraid of the investigation. Then why is he trying to stop the officers from questioning his personal staff?” asks Ramesh Chennithala.
Another issue regarding the rule is the location of questioning. Legal experts opine that even if the Speaker’s interpretation is right it is only applicable if the department decides to question the person within Assembly premises. Considering this, the Customs sent their latest notice for questioning Ayyappan to the latter’s residential address, where the “Speaker doesn’t have any authority”. This move makes evasion a difficult choice for Ayyappan — legally and politically.