FOR THE Punjab Congress MLAs holed up in the Punjab Assembly since Monday evening, the satisfaction of having Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal visit them in the House to persuade them to drop their protest, a plea that they turned down, likely more than compensated for the discomfort of the hot and airless surroundings inside, alleviated by just two fans.
The first of its kind protest in the state by the Congress MLAs came after a chaotic hour on Monday afternoon in the House during which the party’s no-confidence motion against the government was defeated by voice vote without a discussion. The MLAs decided they would not leave the house until the Speaker promised that a debate would be allowed when the House meets again on Wednesday, after Tuesday’s Eid holiday.
With no such assurance forthcoming, 27 MLAs including four women, led by CLP leader Charanjit Singh Channi, dug in for the long night.
Monday evening began with the electricity supply to the Assembly hall being disconnected, in an apparent bid to force the legislators out. It was only after a protest to secretary of Vidhan Sabha Shashi Lakhanpal Mishra last night that a few bulbs and fans were switched on. She expressed her inability to do anything about the air-conditioners, saying those were operated by the UT staff who had gone home.
The MLAs participating in the sit-in urged senior colleagues such as Lal Singh to go home. 22 MLAs remained. Until Tuesday morning when the gates were locked, the MLAs could leave and re-enter as they wished. IYC president and MLA from Gidderbaha Raja Warring said they arranged medicines for some colleagues, and toothbrushes, toothpaste and other toiletries. Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh directed general secretary-and-PPCC in-charge, Capt Sandeep Singh Sandhu, to deliver dinner and water to his party men and women inside Sandhu sent in dal, chapatis, burgers and french fries, and the MLAs took turns to eat the eclectic fare at the CLP office inside the Assembly precincts. Channi summoned for snacks and chai from his residence.
Till 2 am, said Bharat Bhushan Ashu, Ludhiana MLA, the legislators spent time cracking jokes and narrating anecdotes but as the sleep caught up with them, a few of them slept on the benches, others removed the leather cushions from the benches and spread them on the ground.
“Since it was warm and humid inside, I found it difficult to lie down on the leather-covered cushions. So I made myself comfortable on the carpeted floor. The carpet was smelling,” said Ashu.
“The exhaust fans were not working, it was terrible inside. We would take turns to walk outside the Assembly to get some fresh air,” he said.
To keep up the morale of fellow colleagues, MLA Tarlochan Singh Soond raised Bole So Nihal slogans. Pleas to Bhadaur MLA Mohd Sadiq, a famous Punjabi singer, to sing a few songs were not successful, said a legislator.
Charanjit Kaur Bajwa, a woman MLA from Qadian said it was a “horrible experience” for as long as it was pitch dark in the Assembly, “With an all-male watch and ward staff guarding the Speaker’s chair, I felt unsafe. After the lights were switched on, it was better. We were protesting for our people. Otherwise this government does not care. People should know how they murdered the democracy on the floor of the house,” she said. Some of the MLAs developed a headache, she said, but had to cope with it.
MLA Dera Baba Nanak, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa said as the MLAs were protesting, the watch and ward staff spent the night with them in the Assembly guarding the chair of the Speaker, “They sat straight in the chairs. They did not sleep a wink.”
Around 6 am Wednesday, a few MLAs, having houses in Chandigarh including Rana Gurjit Singh, Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, Dr Raj Kumar Verka and women members including Charanjit Bajwa, Karan Kaur Brar, and Harchand Kaur went home.
While Rana Gurjit returned with breakfast, Dr Verka and Dharamsot was not allowed to come back following orders by Vidhan Sabha secretary at 9:45 am that nobody would be allowed to enter the Assembly as per “verbal orders” of the Speaker.
Amarinder, later called up Aruna Chowdhary and told her that “as a woman MLA she had done enough” and she should go home. Chowdhary agreed.
The MLAs who stayed on inside managed to brush their teeth using the Assembly washrooms but there was nowhere to bathe. “We sent for deodorant and change of clothes before the orders of restricted entry were issued,” said Ashu.
For the Congress, the high point of the day was Badal’s visit. He was the only person allowed to enter after 9.45 am. If the chief minister believed that his “folded hands” could persuade the protesting MLAs to call off their sit-in, he was mistaken. It has been a long time since the Congress has had an upper hand and they were not about to surrender it.
After the orders banning entry, senior MLAs including Lal Singh, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Kewal Dhillon, Amrik Singh Dhillon, Dr Raj Kumar Verka and Brahm Mohindra staged a dharna outside the Assembly saying it was shocking that the legislators were were not being allowed to enter.
Campaign committee chief Ambika Soni visited the Vidhan Sabha but was not allowed to enter. Amarinder was conspicuous by his absence at the Assembly gates. However, his team said he had gone to Patiala last night to be with his mother on her 95th birthday.
Later in the day, Batala MLA Ashwini Sekhri complained of uneasiness and profuse sweating. He was shifted to a hospital where he was found to be having low blood sugar and low blood pressure. Two others were also taken ill and left the House in the evening.
Channi said the remaining 19 would continue to protest and stay another night in the Vidhan Sabha and would protest in the session tomorrow. Night 2 was likely to be more comfortable night for the agitating legislators as the air-conditioners were switched on in the hall. As per usual practice, the ACs are switched on a night prior to the morning session as it takes a long time to cool the huge hall.
The agitators had an early dinner. The CLP office ordered in dal and roti for the MLAs. Next on their plate is a battle plan for Wednesday, when the House meets again.