Debate over reviving Tamil Nadu Legislative Council hots up

The Madras Legislative Council is inextricably tied with the political history of TN. Periodic attempts to revive it failed, political parties are now galvanising support to bring the MLC back

The Madras Legislative Council or the Upper House, which was abolished by the late MGR, used to meet at the Senate House in the University of Madras campus from July 1937 to December 1937

Polling in Tamil Nadu has just ended. Even as the results are widely anticipated, the debate over the revival of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Council has heated up among political parties, on and off social media.

Interestingly, parties such as DMK, Congress and BJP have promised to bring back the concept of members of legislative council (MLC) again in Tamil Nadu. But why are all these parties interested in resurrecting the MLC?

To answer that question, one has to tap the history of the formation of the state’s legislature. The MLC, the oldest Legislative Council in the country, was set up by the British in 1861. Based on the Government of India Act, 1935, the bi-cameral legislature was established in the then Madras Presidency in 1937. Post-Independence, the state continued with the bicameral legislature structure, with both members of MLC (Upper House) and MLA ( Member of Legislative Assembly or Lower House) till 1986.

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CMs from MLC

Interestingly, C Rajagopalachari and C N Annadurai became Tamil Nadu’s Chief Ministers through the MLC route. In 1952, when the Congress formed a government in Tamil Nadu, Rajagopalachari was nominated to the MLC and as a member became eligible to the CM post.

Also read: Mood of Tamil Nadu: Pre-Poll Survey

In 1967, DMK founder, the late Annadurai did not contest the Assembly elections, however, his party formed a government. As per the Constitution of India, 1949, the article 164(4) says, if a minister has not become a member of either of the houses, his ministership would cease. So Annadurai contested from South Madras to the MLC and became a member, which gave him the opportunity to become Chief Minister.

The MLC, considered as an advisory body to the Assembly, gives suggestions and ideas to shape laws or schemes. While the Assembly witnesses heated discussion on these issues, the MLC deliberates over them in a mature manner. Describing the Legislative Assembly and MLC as a ‘cup and saucer’, the late Annadurai is supposed to have said that like tea is poured in a saucer to cool it down, the ideas put forth during heated debates in the Assembly are calmly discussed in depth in the MLC.

D Ravikumar, VCK General Secretary and Villuppuram MP, reasoned why the state Assembly also should not have an Upper House when Parliament has two houses.

Moreover, according to him, before a legislation is passed it should be discussed with various stakeholders. “For example, the 10.5% reservation for Vanniyars was passed without any discussion. We all know the wide-ranging implications of this law. But it was pushed through in the last minute. Similarly, many schemes have been announced without discussion and the entire legislative process is being ridiculed. If the MLC is revived, the legislation process would be strengthened,” added Ravikumar.
“In Parliament, there is a 22.5 percent reservation in Lok Sabha for SC/STs. A similar reservation system should be followed for MLCs as well,” he said.

Also read: Competitive clientelism in Tamil Nadu since 1967: Finding a pattern

KS Radhakrishnan, an advocate who filed a case in the Madras High Court to revive the MLC said the Upper House was used to discuss every issue threadbare and provide their insights.

“Take for example, the renaming of the Madras state. If you go through the Assembly records, you can read the kind of debates that took place on that subject in both Houses. You can then see the stark difference between the quality of discussions with the arguments in the Upper House being more nuanced and scholarly,” he said.

Since 1937, the MLC had turned into a permanent body and could not be dissolved. However, one-third of its members retire every two years. Till 1952, there were 56 members present in the legislative council and it went up to 72 in the next year. Between 1956 and 1986, there were 78 members in the MLC.

Abolishment of MLC

In 1986, the MLC was however abolished by the then Chief Minister, the late MG Ramachandran. Interestingly, he himself had been a member of the Council in 1962. He wanted to nominate actress ‘Vennira Aadai’ Nirmala in 1986 but Nirmala had earlier declared insolvency. According to the Constitution of India, the Article 102 – (1) C, an insolvent cannot serve as a member either in the state Legislature or in the Parliament. So, a case was filed by an advocate SK Sundaram to prevent the actress from being nominated to the MLC.

However, MGR stepped forward to pay Nirmala’s debts worth ₹4.65 lakhs and her insolvency became null and void. Meanwhile, Nirmala withdrew her nomination application and the then Governor Sundar Lal Khurana questioned MGR’s nomination of an insolvent person before her debts were cleared. This reportedly incensed MGR to the extent that he ordered the abolishment of the MLC. At that time, MGR was in the good books of the Centre, and the order was passed soon in both Houses and came into effect.

Also read: Can DMK conquer AIADMK’s citadel in western Tamil Nadu?

But there is also another theory why MGR abolished the MLC. In August 1983, DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, who was then the leader of Opposition resigned his post due to the Sri Lankan issue. In April 1984, he was elected to the MLC for the first time. So he chose not to contest in the Assembly elections held in December that year. In that election, MGR won and became the Chief Minister for the second time. While Karunanidhi decided not to contest to save face, MGR viewed the former’s move as a tactical one and decided to abolish the MLC.

In 1989, 1996 and 2006 i.e., whenever the DMK was in power, it passed a resolution in the Assembly to revive the MLC. But when the regime changed, the AIADMK withdrew the resolution passed by the previous government.

Radhakrishnan, who has penned a book in Tamil about the MLC felt that the Upper House can be expected to have at least 10 out of its 78 members to be honest and free of corruption. “In the Legislative Assembly, all the 234 members have some crime and corruption cases against them.”

Where is the place for MLC?

St. George Fort houses the Assembly and has a seating capacity of 260 (as of now the total strength of the house is 234). The Council Chambers used to be housed within the Fort and it was here the MLC met between 1921 and 1937. Between July 1937 and December 1937, both the MLC and MLA met at Senate House, which is located inside the University of Madras campus.

In January 1938, both the Houses moved to Rajaji Hall, located inside the Omandurar Estate in the Mount Road and the proceedings continued till October 1939. Between 1946 and 1952, the Houses again moved back to the Fort. In 1952, after the first Legislative Assembly elections, the member strength rose to 375 and because of space constraints, it moved to Kalaivanar Arangam which is located inside Omandurar Estate.

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Following the state reorganisation in 1956, the Assembly strength dropped to 190 and the Houses again moved to the Fort. While the Assembly continued to work in its own place, the MLC met in the Assembly Hall instead of the Council Chambers. Between April 20 and 30 in 1959, the MLC met at Aranmore Palace in Nilgiris. From August 1959 to November 1986, it continued to meet in the Assembly Hall.

In 2004, the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, decided to relocate the Assembly to Queen Mary’s College and later to Anna University campus. But both the plans were dropped due to a huge uproar from the public. When DMK came to power in 2006, Chief Minister Karunanidhi planned to shift the Assembly to a new building. Accordingly, a new gigantic secretariat was built at Mount Road.

It was here the Assembly met between March 2010 and May 2011. When AIADMK resumed power in 2011, Jayalalithaa relocated the Assembly from the new building to the Fort. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Assembly met at Kalaivanar Arangam in 2020. In this situation, where will the new MLC sit if it is reconstituted?

If there is space constraint, then the government should build a separate building, said Radhakrishnan. “What’s there to think about it? If unnecessary expenditures by members can be reduced, including their salary, then the issue of MLC causing an additional burden for the government financially will not arise,” he said. Meanwhile, the fate of the MLC hangs in the balance.

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