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A disturbed history
Disruptions and protests define the Indian Parliament these days. Though virtually entire sessions being wiped out, as in the 2010 winter session and the last monsoon session, are rare, disruptions and walk-outs have a long history. As far back as 1950, during the debate on the Preventive Detention Bill, a section of the Opposition walked out when the legislation was introduced. It was from the 1960s that disruptions became commonplace. However so long as Jawaharlal Nehru was around, such behaviour drew strong disapproval.
In the third Lok Sabha in 1963, when the Official Languages Bill was introduced, there were unruly scenes in the House. Nehru was most critical, commenting on the behaviour of one particular MP: "I do not know if that gentleman has the least conception of what Parliament is, what democracy is, and how one is supposed to behave or ought to behave. " Earlier that year, some members had tried to disrupt the President's address to the two Houses. This too was strongly disapproved of by Nehru: "The sole question before us is - it is a highly important one and vital one - what rules and conventions we should establish for the carrying of the work of this Parliament with dignity and effectiveness... This Parliament is supposed not only to act correctly but lay down certain principles and conventions of decorous behaviour. " A committee was formed to investigate the incident and in its report laid down norms for conduct of members during the President's address.
With Nehru's death in 1964, it seems his warnings about the need to maintain parliamentary decorum too were forgotten. From the fourth Lok Sabha - the first without Nehru present in the House - walkouts and disruptive behaviour became increasingly common. During the discussion on the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill, which intended to make Hindi the official language of the country as well as continue the use of English for official purposes for another 15 years, there were uproarious scenes inside the House. A member of the Jan Sangh set fire to a copy of the Bill inside Parliament. The next year when the Essential Services Maintenance Bill was put to vote, a majority of Opposition members walked out. As former Lok Sabha secretary-general Subhash Kashyap says, "The fourth Lok Sabha period may be remembered for the fundamental changes in the idiom, the style and culture of parliamentary politics. Hereafter, it was politics in the raw with much of the masks and gloves off. "
In 1971, in a repeat of 1963, the President's address to both Houses was interrupted by a Lok Sabha MP who demanded that the President give his address in Hindi. Once again a committee was formed to enquire into the MP's conduct. The MP was let off but even as the committee was deliberating there was another incident in 1972 when several members interrupted the President's address and walked out. The committee recommended that the Constitution be amended to make rules for "maintenance of order, dignity and decorum" during the President's address. However, Hiren Mukherjee, a CPI MP regarded as one of the best parliamentarians of all time, noted in the committee's report: "Normally no one would like to disturb in any way an occasion like the President's address to Parliament. If, however, circumstances happen to be somewhat abnormal in the country, it might conceivably be the duty of Opposition parties in Parliament to focus attention on the people's discontents even on such an exceptional occasion. "
The hall of the Lok Sabha wasn't the only site of protests. Members wanted permission to hold protests, and even hunger strikes, within the premises of Parliament. A CPM MP, AK Gopalan, in 1964 sought permission to hold a one-day hunger-strike in the lobby of Parliament to protest food shortage in his home state of Kerala. However, the Speaker of the House ruled: "The Lobbies or any parts of this Parliament are not intended for any such demonstrations, strikes or fasts. " In 1965, Swami Rameshwaranand, a Jan Sangh MP, had to be removed by police from the Parliament lawns for protesting against cow slaughter. Again in 1972, an MP from Bihar, Shiv Shankar Prasad Yadav, wanted to hold a 48-hour hunger-strike inside Parliament to protest inaction on drought and famine conditions in his home state. When the Speaker refused permission, he decided to squat outside one of the Parliament gates and even sleep there. But late in the evening the MP was removed along with his bedding by the Parliament security staff. These days it a common sight for MPs to hold up placards and protest in front of the giant Gandhi statue in the Parliament premises.
Disruptions have increasingly become frequent since the 1970s. During the eighth Lok Sabha (1984-89 ), despite the Congress having a brute majority, Parliament was repeatedly disrupted during the discussion on the Bofors kickbacks. The debates were spread over 64 hours and a record of sorts was created when the House was adjourned eight times on a single day on July 20, 1989. Again in December 1995, during the tenure of the tenth Lok Sabha, the House was stalled for 13 days over a telecom scam involving Congress minister Sukh Ram.
The Speaker of the House has usually been powerless to stop disruptions though there are rules to discourage and penalise them. Rule 373 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha permits the Speaker to withdraw from the House a member for "disorderly" conduct. Rule 374 allows the Speaker to suspend for up to five sittings a member for disregarding the "authority of the Chair" or for abusing the rules of the House. However, successive Speakers have rarely used their prerogative to eject members. More often than not, they have opted for the easier option under Rule 375 which permits the Speaker to adjourn the House in case of "grave disorder. "
The MPs, on their part, have publicly proclaimed their desire to preserve order in the House. In 1997, at a special golden jubilee commemorative session of Parliament, the members unanimously adopted a resolution to preserve the "prestige of the Parliament" by maintaining the "inviolability of the Question Hour", refrain from "shouting slogans" and desist from interrupting the President's address. But as is evident, such pious intentions have routinely been ignored and a proposed code of conduct for MPs is yet to see the light of day.
(The writer is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies National University of Singapore)
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