The old and the new stand, staring silently at each other. Each with its own memories. The rotund—a relic of British rule in India—stands with almost a century of history written within its walls. The deltoid—projected as a modern marvel—stands with history being written in recent times. In between, but at a little distance, sits a giant statue of Mahatma Gandhi in meditation. Again silent, as if oblivious to the changing environs. Parliamentarians frequently converge in its shadow, mostly when in protest.
This was the spot that witnessed the aftermath of another bit of ‘history’. The Trinamool Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha, Derek O’Brien, chose it for a ‘silent protest’ after being suspended from the House. It was near here that other MPs, similarly suspended, sat in protest on the steps to the entry of the new Parliament building. And where O’Brien’s colleague from the Lok Sabha, Kalyan Banerjee, mimicked the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Jagdeep Dhankhar, which—among others—Congress MP Rahul Gandhi recorded on his mobile phone.
The protesters were part of a total of 146 Opposition MPs suspended for allegedly violating rules during the winter session of Parliament, when they demanded a discussion on the Parliament security breach that took place on December 13.
Through the decades, the old Parliament building too has been witness to several incidents when its members have been accused of violating rules while holding protests within its sanctums. Both Houses have, on several occasions, reverberated with slogans. Members have rushed into the Well of the House, some have even threatened the Chair, and hurled paper balls and small objects. As a result, disorderly protesters have faced disciplinary action, including suspension at times.
But the suspension of 146 members in the just-concluded winter session rendered both Houses almost free of the Opposition. O’Brien, in his column in the Indian Express, wrote, “A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the (till then) 97 Members of Parliament suspended in Lok Sabha represent nearly 15 crore people, and the 46 MPs suspended in Rajya Sabha represent close to 19 crore people. In other words, the voices of virtually 34 crore people (almost 25% of the population) have been silenced.”
Opposition MPs had demanded a statement from the Home Minister on a security breach that saw a couple of youths creating a ruckus in Parliament on December 13. They submitted a notice demanding a discussion with him on “grave violations of national security in Parliament”. The MPs were told that a high-level committee would conduct an inquiry and the suggestions of members would be sought on strengthening security. But the Opposition was adamant that the Home Minister needed to make a statement. A ruckus followed as members in both Houses turned protesters, many armed with placards, and took to the Well of the House and raised slogans loudly.
As a result, a string of suspensions that began on December 14 continued till December 21, the day Parliament was adjourned sine die. In 2021—it was again the winter session—nearly a dozen MPs, including O’Brien, had been suspended for disorderly behaviour during the passage of bills repealing three contentious farm laws.
The three farm laws were eventually withdrawn by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after more than year-long protests by farmers who threw a siege on the borders of Delhi.
Parliament is considered the temple of democracy, where the Cabinet of Ministers is responsible to the House. In both Houses, MPs seek answers from Ministers. Article 75(3) of the Constitution clearly states that the Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People.
Thus, ministers face questions from MPs on issues related to their departments and the answers can be accessed by any member of the public. Sometimes, an MP may not be satisfied with an answer, or for some other reason pertaining to the procedures or matters concerning the country. In that case, the MP may continue asking questions repeatedly, and other MPs may join in. Gradually, it may turn into a protest. There are various rules that guide proceedings in such situations. But protests can at times get unruly.
For instance, on July 20, 1998, when Law Minister M. Thambi Durai was about to introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill, the Rashtriya Janata Dal MP, Surendra Prakash Yadav, snatched the document and tore it up. He was joined by his colleague, Ajit Kumar Mehta. In such cases, the Chair has to rein in disrupters as per the rules laid down in each House.
Under “Withdrawal and Suspension of Members”, Rule 373 of the Lok Sabha states, “The Speaker, if he is of the opinion that the conduct of any member is grossly disorderly, may direct such member to withdraw immediately from the House, and any member so ordered to withdraw shall do so forthwith and shall remain absent during the remainder of the day’s sitting.”
Rule 374A (1) further adds, “Notwithstanding anything contained in Rules 373 and 374, in the event of grave disorder occasioned by a member coming into the Well of the House or abusing the Rules of the House persistently and wilfully obstructing its business by shouting slogans or otherwise, such member shall, on being named by the Speaker, stand automatically suspended from the service of the House for five consecutive sittings or the remainder of the session, whichever is less….”
Similarly, in the Rajya Sabha, under “Withdrawal and Suspension of Members”, Rule 255 states: “The Chairman may direct any member whose conduct is in his opinion grossly disorderly to withdraw immediately from the Council and any member so ordered to withdraw shall do so forthwith and shall absent himself during the remainder of the day’s meeting.”
Rule 256 (1) states: “The Chairman may, if he deems it necessary, name a member who disregards the authority of the Chair or abuses the rules of the Council by persistently and wilfully obstructing the business thereof.” Such a member can “be suspended from the service of the Council for a period not exceeding the remainder of the Session”.
Former Lok Sabha Secretary General P.D.T. Achary writes, “The House rules provide for suspension of members, of course; legislatures have the power to discipline recalcitrant members. But this power is used very sparingly. The reason is that members of the legislatures are responsible representatives of the people and the principal operators of the constitutional system. They are the lawmakers of the country and the delegates of the sovereign power of the people.”
The Opposition, irrespective of the party or alliance in government, has continued to allege misuse of rules. There have been accusations of “tyranny of the majority”.
But the reality is that the majority party or coalition forms the government. Yet, the debate goes on. If, after suspension, an MP does not leave the House, the Chair may requisition a marshal to physically escort the member out. Fortunately, such extreme measures are rare.
The power allegedly handed over to the majority (government) is not without reason—it is to perform the responsibility of running the House. On the other hand, in a democracy it is the responsibility of the Opposition to take on the government, if necessary. But it has to abide by the rules and regulations. And in today’s context, when the Opposition stands marginalised and fissured, its job is tougher.
Thus, the number of MPs (146) suspended in one session lasting less than three weeks may pose a huge question mark over future proceedings. The next government can use the example as a handy ploy in discharging its responsibilities. After the suspension of the MPs the government rushed through a clutch of controversial bills without much debate. Experts point out that this move has seriously dented the credibility of Parliament’s functioning under the Modi government. It has set a bad precedent for the future.
It is time to empower both sides, but within the limits of decency and protocol. Perhaps it’s time for an empowered committee, comprising veteran parliamentarians, legal pundits, and other experts to look into making some constructive changes in the rules.