Updated: August 13, 2021 8:33:58 am
A day after the Monsoon Session of Parliament came to an abrupt end, Opposition parties launched an offensive against the government, alleging that “outsiders” who were not part of “Parliament security” were brought into the Rajya Sabha to “manhandle” MPs, including women members, during passage of the General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Bill.
Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu condemning “the authoritarian attitude and undemocratic actions of the government”. A delegation of senior Opposition leaders then met Naidu and conveyed their protest.
Opposition MPs from both the Houses, including senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, also met at Kharge’s chamber and then staged a protest march from Parliament to Vijay Chowk.
The Congress, that has played a leading role in rallying the Opposition together, said Thursday that the party’s official Twitter handle, handles of six of its state units, as well as handles of at least 22 leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, had been locked. Starting with Rahul, the handles were locked by Twitter ostensibly over posts containing photograph of the family of a nine-year-old suspected rape-murder victim.
The head of the Congress’s social media department, Rohan Gupta, claimed around 5,000 accounts of its top leaders and workers had been blocked by Twitter. His was among them.
The Congress accused the Narendra Modi government of trying to suppress its voice by “threatening” Twitter, with party leader Randeep Surjewala asserting the attempt would fail. His account was among those locked. Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra accused Twitter of colluding with the government to stifle democracy. Many Congress leaders replaced their Twitter profile pictures with Rahul’s.
In the note they handed over to Naidu, Opposition leaders said that what happened in the Rajya Sabha Wednesday was “an unprecedented insult to our democracy” and it was like there was “martial law” in Parliament. “A very large number of security personnel, who were not part of the regular part of the watch and ward staff of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, were deployed. They used unacceptable force and physically manhandled Members of Parliament,” it said.
Kharge said Opposition MPs had been prevented from registering their protest against the insurance Bill, “on which there was a wide consensus that it should be referred to a Select Committee”.
Apart from Kharge, the delegation that met Naidu included the Congress deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma, its chief whip Jairam Ramesh, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, the Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav, the RJD’s Manoj Jha, the DMK’s Tiruchi Siva, the CPM’s Elamaram Kareem and the CPI’s Binoy Viswam.
The Trinamool Congress, which did not attend the Opposition meeting nor was part of the delegation, also issued a statement attacking the government.
Besides, leaders of 14 Opposition parties issued a joint statement accusing the government of having “deliberately derailed” the Monsoon Session, stonewalling demands for discussions into the Pegasus scandal, farmers’ agitation, inflation and the economic situation. “The government remained arrogant, insincere and obdurate,” they said.
Sources in Twitter said the action of either blocking access to the tweets or restricting access to accounts over a photo allegedly giving away the identity of a minor ‘rape’ victim was done “across the spectrum” and not just accounts affiliated with the Congress. The action was according to Twitter policy and not dependent on a legal notice, a source said.
In its official response, Twitter, which has been facing heat from the Modi government over its policies, said it enforced the rules “judiciously and impartially for everyone”. “We have taken proactive action on several hundred Tweets that posted an image that violated our Rules, and may continue to do so in line with our range of enforcement options. Certain types of private information carry higher risks than others, and our aim is always to protect individuals’ privacy and safety,” a spokesperson for the platform said.
If a post found in violation of rules is not deleted by the account holder, Twitter said, it hides the account behind a notice and it remains locked until the said tweet is removed or an appeal against it is successfully processed. The US-based company said it was alerted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights about the said content.
A source said, “If you see the tweets withheld, they have a notice saying they are not as per Twitter’s guidelines. If there was a legal notice, the withheld tweet would have said that it was being done in response to a legal notice.”
Priyanka asked whether Twitter was following its own policy, or the government’s. “Why hadn’t it locked the account of SC commission that had tweeted similar photos before any of our leaders did?” she said. Questioning PM Modi’s silence on the incident, the Congress general secretary said the real issue was the Delhi Police not lodging an FIR for 15 hours in the matter.
Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who is also the chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology that has questioned Twitter over its policies, said he could understand the microblogging site’s position that it has no choice but to block accounts that violate Indian law and Twitter policy, but said this could be reviewed. “Automatically locking accounts is an extreme step that stifles the freedom of expression of Indian citizens.”
Tharoor added that Twitter had not locked the account of a BJP national spokesman who had “posted a picture of the Hathras rape victim (violating Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code)”, or of the SC Commission. “Action taken against a prominent Opposition leader raises obvious concerns of selectivity & bias,” he tweeted.
Besides Rahul, Surjewala and Rohan Gupta, the Congress said accounts of AICC general secretaries Ajay Maken, K C Venugopal, Harish Singh Rawat and Jitendra Singh; Lok Sabha MP Manickam Tagore; Rajya Sabha MP Ripun Bora; Mahila Congress chief Sushmita Dev; state unit presidents Ganesh Godiyal, Anil Kumar Chaudhary, Madan Mohan Jha, Revanth Reddy and Balasaheb Thorat; AICC in-charges Rajani Patil and Chella Kumar; and spokespersons, leaders Ponnam Prabhakar, Pranav Jha, Pawan Khera and Gourav Vallabh were locked.
The Congress units whose handles are locked are Mumbai Regional Congress Committee, Maharashtra Congress Committee, Gujarat Congress Committee, Rajasthan Congress Committee, Daman & Diu Congress Committee and Tamil Nadu Congress Committee.
Addressing a press conference with Opposition leaders, Rahul Gandhi said the “voice of 60% of this country was crushed, humiliated” in Parliament. He also hit out at Naidu and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, saying it was their responsibility to run the House.
“In my 55 years of parliamentary career, I have never seen this kind of behaviour towards women MPs… More than 40 men and women were brought into the House from outside… It is an attack on democracy,” Pawar posted on Twitter.
Raut said private people dressed as marshals tried to assault women MPs. “Mujhe laga yeh marshals nahin the, martial law lagaya tha Rajya Sabha aur Parliament mein,” he said. “I felt I was standing at the Pakistan border and I was stopped from going inside.”
Interestingly, former prime minister and JD(S) chief H D Deve Gowda issued a statement saying both the government and Opposition must “reflect hard about how we should move forward”. “Being terribly adamant and being over-enthusiastic are both dangerous. We have to quickly find a middle path,” Gowda said.
On Thursday, Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan called on Gowda, later hailing him on Twitter as a “statesman” who has “devoted his life for farmers”.
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