November 29, 2021, will be remembered as a black day in the history of India’s parliamentary democracy. On that day, by a fell blow, the custodian of the Lok Sabha’s rights, its Speaker Om Birla, struck at the very raison d’etre of the House. Historically and constitutionally Parliament is no legislature machine. It is the grand inquest of the nation.
In Britain and in India, debates long preceded legislation. What is particularly repulsive is that the outrage was orchestrated. Hours before the House met, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid down the law in the very terms that the Speaker used in his ruling. At the Business Advisory Committee, which met shortly before the House, BJP members dutifully said ditto.
Holding the House to ransom
The Farm Laws Repeal Bill, 2021, sought to repeal three contentious farm laws. The Agriculture Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, introduced the Bill for “consideration” and adoption, which implies after debate. This was fortified by his attacks on the Opposition’s “hypocritical attitude”. The Opposition had a right to rebut this but this right was denied to it.
The Speaker ruled, “I will allow the discussion only when the House is in order”. The Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha give him no right or power to hold the House to ransom unless such assurances are given in advice. No self-respecting Opposition will submit to this. The Rules give him ample power to enforce order after it has been disrupted.
The Minister arrogated to himself the right to decide that there was no need for a debate because there was a consensus on the repeal of the three Acts. This is disingenuous. The Acts remained to be discussed. As the All India Kisan Sabha pointed out, the three Acts did not include safeguards to prevent profiteering and monopoly by corporates and private entities. The Opposition was denied the right to move amendments to the repealing Bill. The Minister went further still. He said that a debate would have no tangible results. Why then hold debates on foreign policy, for instance? Was the House not entitled to move an amendment to legal guarantees for Minimum Support Price?
The Rules of Procedure are drafted to ensure a free debate, not to stifle it. There is not a single Rule or Standing Order which empowers the Speaker to act as Mr. Birla did. Consider Rule 362(1) to begin with: “At any time after a motion has been made, any member may move that the question be now put, and unless it appears to the Speaker that the motion is an abuse of these rules or an infringement of the right of reasonable debate, the Speaker shall then put the motion that the question be now put.” Closure cannot be imposed without a prior debate.
Rule 363(1) says: “Whenever the debate on any motion in connection with a Bill or on any other motion becomes unduly protracted, the Speaker may, after taking the sense of the House, fix a time limit for the conclusion of discussion on any stage or all stages of the Bill or the motion, as the case may be”. It is the “sense of the House”, not the Speaker’s opinion, which governs.
The Speaker’s powers
The Speaker has ample power to quell disorderly behaviour. But thereafter, the House is the master. It can overrule the Speaker (Rule 374A). The Speaker can adjourn the House or suspend a sitting. The Speaker has no power to refuse a debate unless an undertaking is given for good conduct in future.
Debates are meant for the edification of the people and are, in turn, influenced by public opinion. As Ivor Jennings wrote in his classic on Parliament, “It is not the control of the Government by the House but the fact that its dislikes are often a representation of electoral dislikes that makes debate important.”
Jennings wrote, “Obstruction is an ordinary part of parliamentary procedure”. The Rules of Procedure provide precisely what Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice prescribes. In the event of grave disorder, the Speaker may adjourn the House or suspend the sittings. He cannot stipulate good behaviour as condition for debate.
What happens in our Parliament is nothing compared to the “rowdyism” in the House of Commons which Philip Norton specified in The Times of July 7, 1990. Yet, he warned that “to limit the capacity of the House to debate is to frustrate the very purpose of the institution, and so undermine support for the system of government.”
MPs must draw up a documented statement on the matter, based on India’s Rules of Procedure and those of the U.K., Canada and Australia, in assertion of their rights and those of the people they represent. In fairness, the Speaker should be invited, most respectfully, to indicate the Rule under which he acted on November 29, 2021.
A.G. Noorani is a constitutional expert