Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Disrupting Parliament must be made a criminal offence….

The most pressing need before the country is to ensure that Parliament be allowed to function without any disruptions. The most common sight these days is of Parliament being adjourned either for a few hours or the entire day or for a few days or indeed for the entire session. Letting Parliament function is the responsibility that comes with all the rights that our MPs enjoy. Disrupting Parliament should be treated like a criminal offence.

The murder of democracy is now taking place with increasing regularity. Its not being done by just one or two parties; all of them stand a ccused. Murdering democracy does not even take too many members. Even a handful are sufficient. If in the last few years, the BJP has perfected the art of hijacking Parliament, the same has been learnt by several regional parties like the SP and BSP as well. Essentially, the approach of these parties is that if something is not done as per their liking, they will disallow the House from functioning. The rest can do nothing even if they want to continue working. Basically, the whole House (and indeed the country itself) is taken hostage by these hoodlums. Its important we remove this scourge or we will find ourselves in a situation where the frustrated and angry people of the country throw out democracy itself.

The presiding officers of the two Houses should not only have the powers to control the proceedings (which they have), but should be obligated by law to exercise them. In that regard, I would like to express support to the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, and the current Vice President of India, who raised pointed questions after his House was disrupted yesterday. Why the Speaker of the Lok Sabha doesn’t use her powers is something she should explain. Why are marshals not deployed against members who disrupt the houses?

It was in Nov 2011 that Digvijay Singh of the Congress had tweeted: Another day wasted in Parliament. It hasn't used Institution of Marshals in Parliament since 2004 to make it function. High time they did!” Unfortunately, the response of the main opposition party was anything but reassuring. The Indian Express reported: Reacting sharply to it, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javdekar said, “We strongly condemn the statement of Digivijay Singh. This is highly undemocratic”. Somebody should ask the BJP what is undemocratic about letting Parliament function. If this is their understanding of democracy, then not even god can save them.

If we just agree that the House can never be dismissed, a few simple rules immediately follow:

1.         Raising your voice, debating fiercely, heckling the other speakers…..is all fine but within limits set by the presiding officer of the house. Once the presiding officer says “Enough”, all members are duty bound to stop. The ones who don’t should be branded criminals and evicted. A mandatory penalty should be imposed on them. The penalty should be both financial (which they wont care about) and otherwise – basically a suspension for a certain number of days. Even if the strength of the House is reduced by the hundreds, the House should continue to run. MPs obviously are free to take their protests to the streets and to media.
2.         Presiding officers of the two houses should be mandated to use marshals and exercise force when it becomes necessary.
3.         Criminal litigation must automatically commence against any member who disrupts the working. This should be mandatory with no discretion being permitted. Since the two Houses are under constant TV coverage, there should be no difficulty in establishing culpability.
4.         If an affected party or an aggrieved member appeals against the decision of the Speaker or Chairman to expel him, he can approach the SC. The SC must dispose off the complaint within a fixed timeline.
5.         Repeated offences must lead to disqualification of the member for the entire period of the House. Repeat offenders should be disallowed from contesting elections for ten years. We know just how much our MPs would hate this.
6.         When the House functions without several MPs or parties present, the passage of bills will become smoother. Obviously, the ruling party will get an edge. This will make the opposition wary of disrupting the Houses since it will lead to the passage of bills that they could otherwise have objected to. The rule of “majority of members present and voting” should be continued.

These rules may appear like they are too tough. Or like they are squashing the right to protest. Well, that’s the exact idea. Even in a democracy, there are times when a heavy hand needs to be used. By keeping the judiciary separate from the politicians, the Constitution permitted such a heavy hand. Imagine if the judiciary were to be held hostage by our MPs and stopped from functioning? Likewise, the Executive is given a separate and distinct role, so that nothing stops it from functioning. In the same manner, it is important that the ultimate symbol of our democracy, Parliament itself, is protected and ring-fenced against deviant members. Making the Parliamentary process a little dictatorial will not harm our democracy, but actually make it stronger.

The real truth is that our Parliamentarians need to be disciplined. Just look at where we stand today. It’s almost predictable that a session will not be allowed to function for 50-100% of the time. Given the declining standards of our Parliamentarians (cutting across party lines), we need to take new measures to restrain our MPs and to remind them that their job is to serve the people. Not disrupt the House….

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