On Friday, MLAs in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly settled their differences with bare knuckles, untrammelled by the Queensberry rules. The fracas is only the latest of several unseemly incidents reported from state assemblies, which should be readying themselves to take on a larger role in national affairs as more power, financial and political, devolves to them. Instead of strengthening the culture of debate in order to play a part in national affairs, however, MLAs are showing an unfortunate inclination to let physical action do the talking.
Last week in Kerala, which otherwise has a healthy tradition of political debate, the government called in the crime branch to probe the embarrassing violence in the assembly on March 13. Finance Minister K.M. Mani, whose name has cropped up in the bar licence scam, had speed-read his budget from behind a human shield of assembly staffers. Committed to preventing him from presenting the document, the Opposition vandalised the speaker’s podium, tried to barricade the House and declared war on a police force 2,500 strong. Meanwhile, in Madhya Pradesh, Congress legislators have stormed, captured and established a permanent presence in the well of the House. The provocation was the chief minister’s reply to farmers’ issues raised on the last day of the session. The Congress found him unconvincing and refused to leave the premises in an orderly fashion when the House adjourned.
While Parliament is under careful watch for legislative probity, the assemblies, which are no less important, generally escape national scrutiny. The Kerala incident was not the first time, for instance, that a budget prompted unspeakable behaviour in an assembly. In 1989, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had his spectacles broken in the budget session, while J. Jayalalithaa’s sari was pulled. The bitterness that the violence created has affected relations between the DMK and the AIADMK ever after. Such unruliness was intolerable then and doubly so now, when the Central government is working to relinquish some power and it seems possible that the balance may tilt in favour of the states. Without a culture of healthy debate, however, the assemblies cannot possibly take on a bigger role.