With the government’s image and reform agenda at stake, the ruling BJP appeared to be making extra efforts Thursday, the first day of the winter session of Parliament, to give space to the Opposition for smooth functioning of the House.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat through the discussion in Lok Sabha on the ‘Commitment to India’s Constitution’ on the 125th birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar, listening to the speeches attentively, actively interacting with cabinet colleagues and not showing any expression whenever the treasury benches scored points against the Opposition.
But the session opener was not without acrimony despite the Prime Minister’s call to make Parliament a place for debate.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s swipe at the critics of the government on the issue of intolerance and the inclusion of the word ‘secular’ in the preamble of the Constitution had the Opposition benches protesting. Modi did not look amused each time BJP MPs mocked the
Opposition — rather he looked concerned that a furore could derail the government’s business for the nearly month-long session.
“We have to get our important bills at least this session. Otherwise, we will be in deep trouble. We have been told to maintain utmost restraint,” a senior BJP MP said.
When Lok Sabha adjourned for lunch, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu was heard ticking off a party MP in the lobby: “Why did you have to make unnecessary comments? You should remember we are the ruling party.”
Rajnath Singh, who initiated the two-day debate, began by paying rich tributes to Sardar Patel, Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru — Singh said no one could deny Nehru’s role in nation building — but antagonised the Opposition with his remarks on the raging debate over acts of intolerance.
Secularism, he said, is the most misused word now. “Misuse of the word secular should be stopped immediately. Political misuse of any expression given in the Constitution should not be there. We are facing problems in ensuring social harmony because of the misuse of these expressions,” he said.
Taking a swipe at the Congress, Singh said Ambedkar did not want the preamble to be amended by anyone, but in 1976, through the 42nd amendment, two words — secular and socialist — were added during Congress rule. He said Ambedkar did not believe it was necessary to include those words as they were “values core to the Indian ethos”.
This led to loud protests from Opposition MPs. Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge argued that Ambedkar was in favour of adding the words to the preamble but could not do so because “the atmosphere was not right then”.
Singh countered, saying secular in Hindi does not mean ‘dharam nirpeksh’ but ‘panth nirpeksh’ (non-sectarian). He described Ram as the greatest democrat since he had asked his wife Sita to take the ‘agni pariksha’ because someone had raised an issue concerning her.
In the heated exchange of words, Kharge shouted: “Ambedkar and we are from this country. Aryans (referring to the Hindi heartland) came from outside. We are the original inhabitants of this land. Despite facing insults for 5,000 years, we have been here and we continue to live in this country.”
Singh’s remark on secularism in fact broke the calm that the government had been trying to build amid the debate on intolerance.
In what appeared to be a jibe at Aamir Khan — the actor triggered a row when, at the Ramnath Goenka Awards ceremony earlier this week, he said his wife Kiran, worried over rising acts of intolerance, had asked him if they should consider leaving the country — Singh said: “Ambedkar had to go through condemnation, humiliation and barbs. But he controlled his emotion and put forth an objective view for the country. He never complained how he was being ignored and humiliated in India. He said he would stay in the country, keeping India’s values and culture in mind, to strengthen the nation.”
This had Opposition MPs shouting: “People feel like leaving the country because of you.”
Sonia targets government: Principles and ideals of Constitution under threat
Targeting the government over the rising acts of intolerance in the country, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said that ideals and principles of the Constitution were under threat and were being deliberately attacked.
“People who never had faith in the Constitution, nor had they participated in its drafting, are now swearing by it and
are laying claim to it. They are now having a discussion on commitment to it. There cannot be a bigger joke than this,” she said, participating in the Lok Sabha debate on the ‘Commitment to the Constitution’.
Insisting that whatever being witnessed over the past few months was “totally against the principles” of the Constitution, she recalled Ambedkar’s warning to slam the ruling party. She said Ambedkar had observed that howsoever good a Constitution may be, if those implementing it were bad people, then the ultimate effect would only be bad.
She sought to highlight the contribution of the Congress in the drafting of the Constitution and in the freedom struggle.She said Ambedkar had said “I was surprised when I was chosen as the chairman. There were more learned and better people than me in the committee. It was the discipline of the Congress party that enabled the drafting committee to give full information about every Act in the Constitution”.
She said it was the Congress which had spotted the “unique talent and capability” of Ambedkar who had returned after higher studies in US, UK and Germany on political theory and economics and was passionately fighting for the cause of the Scheduled Castes and the oppressed.
She said on the morning of 26 November 1949, when the Constitution was formally adopted, Dr Rajendra Prasad complimented Ambedkar by saying there could not have been a better chief for the drafting committee. She said Nehru was among the four stalwarts who guided the committee — the other three were Prasad, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad.
She said of the eight committees of the drafting committee, the chairman of these were either Nehru, Patel or Prasad. Azad was a prominent member of five of these committees.
The history of the Constitution, she, is very old and linked to the country’s freedom struggle and that it why it is interlinked with the Congress.
When some BJP members tried to protest, she said what she is saying is history to which no one could have any objection.
Earlier, in her opening remarks, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan reminded the House that India has a liberal polity, one which ensures that the trinity of liberty, equality and justice are central to governance. “Criticism and dissent, especially through the media, and intellectual discourse are vibrant, part and parcel of our democracy,” she said.
The Speaker said consensus building was a very crucial element in democratic governance and required MPs to engage each other and the world together.
Before the House met, the Prime Minister tried to set the tone for the winter session saying debate, discussion and dialogue are the soul of Parliament. Entering the Lok Sabha minutes before it met, he went to the Opposition benches and greeted the leaders sitting there.
Underlining that there is no bigger centre for ‘samvad’ than Parliament, Modi said: “Parliament session will have good debates, discussions, innovative ideas and Parliament will shine. Our Constitution is a ray of Hope; H for harmony, O for Opportunity, P for People’s participation and E for equality.”
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