Right to Speak, Duty to Hear

P. Chidambaram (19 December 2021) – The Winter Session of Parliament commenced on November 29, 2021. The Lok Sabha is debating Bills, motions, etc. every day. Discussion on several subjects has taken place. But the Rajya Sabha is in turmoil. The issue that hangs as a dark cloud over the Rajya Sabha is the suspension, on the first day of the session, of 12 members of the House belonging to different Opposition parties for the remainder of the session until December 24.

The entire Opposition is agitated, some more, some less. All the Opposition parties protested together, marched together and addressed the media together. Inside the Rajya Sabha, however, while some refused to participate in any manner, some asked questions during Question Hour or made Special Mentions. In the lobbies and in the Central Hall, there are conflicting views. Outside the House, the 12 suspended members, sitting on a dharna at the foot of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue, are incensed. It is an unprecedented situation.

The Origin, the Surprise

The genesis of the dispute is what happened on the last day of the previous session — August 11, 2021. According to the Parliamentary Bulletin Part I of that day, certain members “entered the ‘well’ of the House, displayed placards, shouted slogans and persistently and wilfully obstructed the proceedings of the House.” The Bulletin listed the names of 33 members. No action was taken or hinted at.

What started on November 29 was a new session. The proceedings started at 11 am. After obituary references, the House was adjourned for an hour as a mark of respect, it reconvened at 12.20 pm and normal business was resumed. After the lunch recess, at 2 pm, the Farm Laws Repeal Bill was taken up and passed without a discussion at 2.06 pm (on that, I shall reserve comment). The House was adjourned and re-assembled at 3.08 pm. Out of the blue, a minister moved a motion to suspend 12 members for the remaining part of the session, the motion was adopted, members protested, but the House was adjourned at 3.21 pm (according to the Parliamentary Bulletin Part I dated November 29.)

Contentious Rule

On the next day, the suspended members began a dharna. It has continued for three weeks. The government is not willing to budge; the Chairman is not willing to nudge the government to yield.

The Rule that applies to suspension of a member is Rule 256 (see box). The Rule is clear. The verbatim record of the Rajya Sabha does not show that any member was named on August 11. It was only when the Rajya Sabha re-assembled at 3.08 pm on November 29 that the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs moved a motion to suspend the 12 members, and the Bulletin says the motion was adopted. There was no attempt to put the motion to the House or take a vote. Opposition members are unanimous that a vote was not taken. The Treasury Benches do not refute that position.

Several questions were sought to be raised in the House. Can members be suspended in a new session for alleged disorderly conduct in the previous session? Can members be suspended when none of them was ‘named’ on August 11? Can members be suspended on a motion that was not voted upon by the House? While 33 members were accused of disorderly conduct, why were only 12 suspended? Why was Mr Elamaran Kareem, who did not figure in the list of 33, suspended? These questions were not allowed to be raised in the House, and hence there is no option but to raise them in the public domain.

Democracy Diminished

On December 16, the Opposition moved a motion under the proviso to Rule 256(2), which allowed a motion to be moved “at any time” to terminate the suspension of the members. The Presiding Officer rejected the motion on technical — and questionable — grounds.

If those who have the right to speak (the Opposition) are not allowed to speak, and if those who have the duty to hear (the government) plug their ears, democracy is diminished.

Rule 256 Suspension of Member

  1. 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.
  2. If a member is so named by the Chairman, he shall forthwith put the question on a motion being made, no amendment, adjournment or debate being allowed, that the member (naming him) be suspended from the service of the Council for a period not exceeding the remainder of the session:

Provided that the Council may, at any time, on a motion being made, resolve that such suspension be terminated.

  1. A member suspended under this rule shall forthwith quit the precincts of the Council.

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