It is far from clear where in the rule book there is sanction to suspend a member of a legislature for allegedly outraging the nationalist sentiments of colleagues. But as things stand, > Waris Pathan, a member of the Maharashtra Assembly , is suspended for the remainder of its Budget session for refusing to chant along to > “Bharat Mata ki Jai ” . The sequence of events that led to his punishment is unbecoming of a legislative chamber. Mr. Pathan belongs to the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. Imtiyaz Jaleel, the party’s other MLA, participating in a debate on the Governor’s Address, criticised the State government’s plans to build memorials for historical and contemporaneous political leaders, including Shivaji, B.R. Ambedkar and Bal Thackeray. Questioning the expenditure, he sought funds for public goods such as hospitals, when a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA cornered him on his loyalties and demanded that the AIMIM’s two MLAs chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Mr. Pathan said he would not, drawing an uproar from MLAs not only of the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena coalition, but also of the Opposition Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. Following some threatening slogans, Minister of State for Home Ranjit Patil moved a resolution to suspend Mr. Pathan for the rest of the session, and it was carried through unanimously. Even by the recent standards of intimidation within some legislatures, the > Maharashtra Assembly’s action is a dangerous one and must be contested legally if it is not to become a precedent that would further hollow out India’s constitutional freedoms.
The suspension of a member for asserting his freedom of expression is a particularly spectacular low for democracy. India’s legislatures enjoy extraordinary privileges to secure the freedom of expression, drawn from the British House of Commons’ historic struggle to win autonomy from the Crown. Over the decades they have absorbed dissent against the Indian Republic far more potent than this insistence by Mr. Pathan that he be allowed to choose how to word his loyalty to India. Indeed, it is a matter of pride for Indian democracy that not only have legislatures accommodated different ideas of nationhood but they have emerged the stronger for that. Wednesday’s events therefore must be seen for the alarm that they represent — for the substitution of a new politics of intimidation in place of India’s more organic politics of persuasion. If politics is going to fall in place around binaries forced by slogans such as “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, with ideologues like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s patriarch marking deeper lines in the sand, and giving smaller political groups such as Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM more polarising means to profess their challenge to a majoritarian consensus, the polarisation can only be fought from the middle ground on the basis of basic democratic values. That political parties see little value in holding this ground must be cause for foreboding — about the “Bharat Mata ki Jai” touchstone migrating out of the State legislature.