Updated: July 30, 2021 7:12:20 am
Taking strong exception to the “last minute refusal” Wednesday by representatives of three ministries to attend a meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, the panel’s chairman, Shashi Tharoor, has written to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla asking him to take “serious cognizance” of the matter, and called their conduct “unprecedented”, “breach of Parliamentary privilege” and “contempt of the House”.
The IT panel, which is expected to discuss the Pegasus spyware issue, had called officials of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Ministry of Home Affairs, and Department of Telecommunication on the subject ‘Citizens’ Data Security and Privacy’.
While the meeting could not take place as the 10 BJP members present did not sign the attendance register, and hence ensured lack of quorum, it is the actions of the ministry officials that Tharoor has taken up with the Speaker. The Standing Committee has 31 members (including Tharoor), and at least 10 need to be present for a quorum. After the BJP members absented themselves, only nine remained Wednesday.
Tharoor has pointed out that the officers notified that they would not be appearing before the panel within minutes of each other, at 2.33 pm, 2.44 pm and 2.55 pm.
In his three-page letter, which he has reportedly circulated to all the members of the panel, Tharoor has pointed out that the two ministries and the department were informed about the July 28 sitting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee as early as July 20.
“All the three Ministries/ Department had confirmed their participation… However, just before the sitting was about to take place, I was informed by the Committee Branch of the Secretariat that email communications have been received in the afternoon around 3 PM on July 28 from the three Ministries/Department informing that their representative will not be able to appear before the Committee,” Tharoor has written.
Detailing the sequence of events, he has said the MeitY “forward an email at 2.44 PM” seeking exemption from appearance before the committee stating that the Chairperson of the Joint Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, has “desired to have an urgent meeting with the Secretary and other senior officers of MeitY for discussion/clarification on The Personal Data Protection Bill at 3.45 in Chairman’s chamber in Parliament House annexe”.
The Ministry of Home Affairs, Tharoor has said in his letter, “forwarded their mail at 2.33 PM seeking exemption from attending the meeting on account of urgent and pressing commitments related to the… Parliament session”.
A similar communication, he has said, was “received from the Department of Telecommunication at 2.52 PM stating that it will not be possible for Secretary, DoT to appear before the committee due to urgent Parliament related matters relating to Parliament questions listed for July 29”.
Citing Direction 59(1) of the Directions by Speaker, which say a ministry or department should be represented by the Secretary or the Head of the Department if required to give evidence before a committee on any matter, Tharoor has written, “it is important to share that, as Chairperson, I did not excuse these witnesses from attendance”.
Referring to provisions contained in the Practice and Procedure of Parliament by Kaul and Shakdher, Tharoor has said the failure of a witness to appear before a committee when summoned constitutes contempt of the House.
“The last-minute refusal of the Ministries/Department to appear before the Committee has been unprecedented and clearly constitutes breach of parliamentary privilege and contempt of the House. Besides, this has undermined the authority of a Parliamentary Committee. I hope you will take serious cognizance of this matter and undertake action as deemed appropriate under the rules,” Tharoor has said.
Talking to reporters in Parliament on what transpired at the meeting Wednesday, the Congress MP said, “I am very disappointed that some elements on some issues have chosen to reduce this committee to some sort of a ping pong match, which I don’t believe is in the spirit of Parliament or parliamentary committee.”
On BJP MP Nishikant Dubey moving a “privilege motion” against him, Tharoor said it has no “validity” as no constituted procedure was followed in introducing the motion, which requires the Speaker to get the leave of the House before it can be introduced.
On Dubey’s allegation that Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra had called him a “Bihari goonda” when the panel members had assembled for the meeting Wednesday, Tharoor said, “How can I tell you about a meeting which never happened? I am completely unaware if somebody allegedly said something at a meeting that never took place to somebody who was not there. How am I to be concerned about it?”
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