The Winter Session of Parliament began on a stormy note on Monday. Both Houses saw disruptions as Lok Sabha passed the Bill repealing the three farm laws without any discussion, and Rajya Sabha passed it after a brief intervention by Leader of Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge.
After that, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Prahlad Joshi sought the approval of the House for suspending 12 Rajya Sabha MPs (six of the Congress, two each of the Trinamool Congress and Shiv Sena, and one each of CPI and CPI-M) for the remainder of the session. The reason for their suspension was “their unprecedented acts of misconduct, contemptuous, unruly and violent behaviour and intentional attacks on security personnel” on the last day of the Monsoon Session.
Parliament has seen continuous disruptions since the passage of the farm laws in the 2020 Monsoon Session too. When the Bills came up for discussion in Rajya Sabha, Opposition MPs demanded their scrutiny by a Select Committee. Amid slogan-shouting, MPs hurled papers at Deputy Chairman Harivansh. This led to the suspension of six Opposition MPs. Parliament passed the Bills without scrutiny by a committee.
Then, in this year’s Monsoon Session, Opposition parties were asking for a discussion on the alleged Pegasus hacking and farm laws issues. When Electronics & Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw was making a statement on Pegasus in Rajya Sabha, Trinamool Congress MP Shantanu Sen snatched the papers from him. This was followed by a heated exchange between Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri and Sen, who alleged that the minister threatened and verbally abused him. Rajya Sabha suspended Sen for the rest of the Monsoon Session.
Disruptions marred both Houses throughout the session, which ended with a melee in Rajya Sabha. Opposition MPs accused security staff of manhandling them, and in turn, Leader of the House Piyush Goel accused Opposition MPs of attacking the security staff and demanding a special committee to investigate the incident. The session then ended two days ahead of schedule.
MPs are required to adhere to certain rules of parliamentary etiquette. For example the Lok Sabha rulebook specifies that MPs are not to interrupt the speech of others, maintain silence and not obstruct proceedings by hissing or making running commentaries during debates. Newer forms of protest led to these rules being updated in 1989. Now, members should not shout slogans, display placards, tear up documents in protest, and play a cassette or a tape recorder in the House. Rajya Sabha has similar rules. To conduct the proceedings smoothly, the rulebook also gives certain, similar powers to the presiding officers of both Houses.
The presiding officer of each House can direct an MP to withdraw from the legislative chamber for grossly disorderly conduct. The MP then has to remain absent from the proceedings of the House for the remainder of the day. The presiding officers can also “name” an MP for “persistently and wilfully obstructing the business” of the House. In such a case, usually, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister moves a motion for suspending the offending MP from the service of the House. The suspension can last until the end of the session.
In 2001, the Lok Sabha rule was amended to give the Speaker one additional power. A new rule, 374A, empowers the Speaker to automatically suspend an MP for a maximum of five days for disrupting the business of the House. In 2015, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan used this rule for suspending 25 Congress MPs.
The first instance occurred in 1963. A few Lok Sabha MPs first interrupted President Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and then walked out while he was delivering the joint address to both Houses. Lok Sabha ended in reprimanding these MPs. In 1989, 63 MPs were suspended from Lok Sabha on the discussion of the Thakar Commission report. More recently in 2010, 7 MPs were suspended from Rajya Sabha for snatching the women’s reservation bill from the minister. Since then, MPs have raised slogans, used pepper spray in the House and displayed placards.
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How difficult has it been to solve the problem of disruptions?
Presiding officers have grappled with it. Over numerous conferences, they have deliberated on ways of addressing the issue.
Former President K R Narayanan, who also chaired Rajya Sabha from 1992-97, explained the difficulty involved: “In most cases, disorders in the House arise out of a sense of frustration felt by members due to lack of opportunities to make his point, or clear his chest of grievances of the people that move him or out of the heat of the moment. They are perhaps easier to deal with. What is more difficult to tackle is planned parliamentary offences and deliberate disturbances for publicity or for political motives.”
In 2001, during a national conference in the Central Hall of Parliament organised on the issue of disruptions, different political leaders summed up their positions. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said the majority party is responsible for governing and should take other parties into confidence. He said the Opposition should play a constructive role in Parliament and be allowed to put forward its views and express itself in a dignified manner.
Sonia Gandhi, the then leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, emphasised that debate is central to democracy, and therefore there should be more debate and fewer disruptions. She identified “the reluctance and procrastination” of the treasury benches to face discussions as a cause for disorder in Parliament. She sought the support of the presiding officers to help the Opposition in raising issues uncomfortable to the government.
Mamata Banerjee, leader of the Trinamool Congress, said that in a democracy, power is transient and that a party ruling at the Centre may not be in control in the states. She stressed the need for cordial and respectful relations between the Opposition and ruling parties.
Chakhsu Roy is Head of Outreach at PRS Legislative Research