It’s not an exaggeration to say that disruptions define the Indian Parliament. The numbers back this up. The amount of time lost due to disruptions in Parliament had steadily risen from 5% of working time in the truncated 11th Lok Sabha (1996-97) to 39% in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14). The year 2011 was a particularly bad one when 30% of the available time was lost due to disruptions. The year before, the entire winter session was lost due to the furore over the 2G scam.
Though disruptions have come down after the BJP’s dominant victories in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, the threat of disorder is always lurking. Disruptions have usually occurred when a government policy or a national issue has united the Opposition. The month-long winter session of 2016 was the least productive of the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) after the Opposition united against the Modi government’s sudden and ill-conceived decision to demonetise high-denomination currency notes, which was announced days before the session began. As much as 92 hours or 73% of the session was lost due to disruptions. In fact, despite a single-party majority, the 16th Lok Sabha worked for 20% more than the disruptionhit 15th Lok Sabha, but 40% lower than the average of all full-term Lok Sabhas.
Disruptions in Parliament, however, have a long history. When India’s first Lok Sabha met in 1952, there were highquality debates on issues of critical importance to independent India. But it wasn’t as if the precincts of Parliament only saw calm and reasoned debates. Soon after the first Lok Sabha convened in 1952, an amendment to the contentious Preventive Detention Bill brought about, in the words of veteran journalist BG Verghese, “an unprecedented hullaballoo”. During the debate on preventive detention, a marshal even approached a Communist party member, KA Nambiar, to evict him, but he responded by shouting, “I will not go. You will have to take me by force.” It was left to one of India’s best parliamentarians and fellow Communist, Hiren Mukherjee, to pacify the Speaker. Subsequently the Communists staged a walkout only to return later in the day.
A decade later, during the third Lok Sabha in 1963, when the Official Languages Bill was introduced, there were strong protests by some Opposition members, which this newspaper described as the first time that such “disorderly scenes” were witnessed in the House. Two members, including Swami Rameshwaranand of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, had to be forcibly ejected by the watch and ward staff. Another member grabbed the microphone and hurled abuse at the Speaker and the Prime Minister. Nehru, always a strict disciplinarian, took strong exception to this behaviour, noting: “I do not know if that gentleman has the least conception of what Parliament is, what democracy is, and how one is supposed to behave or ought to behave.”
Indeed, as a foreign journalist observed, it was Nehru rather than the Speaker who “held the reins of the House” and when the Speaker’s entreaties were ignored, it would be “Nehru’s cutting voice which overrode the tumult and restored contrite decorum”. An unrepentant Rameshwaranand would later light a “sacred fire” in the Central Hall of Parliament and set fire to a copy of the Bill. When the Speaker informed him that lighting a fire was “forbidden” inside Parliament House, Rameshwaranand took position outside the gate for visitors and burnt a copy of the Bill.
Earlier that year, some members had tried to disrupt the President’s address to the two Houses, delivered once a year and considered one of the most important and sacrosanct events of the parliamentary schedule. A committee was formed to investigate the incident and in its report laid down some norms for the conduct of members during the President’s address. It said that it was a “constitutional obligation on the part of the members to listen to the President’s address with decorum and dignity” and reiterated that the House can punish a member if in its opinion a member has “acted in unbecoming manner or has acted in a manner unworthy of a member.”
Disruptions the new normal
After Nehru’s death in 1964, it seems his warnings about parliamentary decorum too were forgotten. There were fears raised by the historian of parliament, WH Morris-Jones, who noted that the passing of Nehru was likely to mark the “end of a period” for the Westminster model. From the fourth Lok Sabha (1967-70) – the first without Nehru present in the House – walkouts and disruptive behaviour became increasingly common. Subhash Kashyap, a former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, points out that from the fourth Lok Sabha the culture of parliamentary politics changed and it was politics with the “masks and gloves off”.
The floor of the Lok Sabha was not the only site of protests. Members wanted permission to hold protests, and even hunger strikes, within the premises of Parliament. The Communist MP AK Gopalan in 1964 held a one-day hunger strike in the lobby of Parliament to protest food shortage in his home state of Kerala. In 1966, Rameshwaranand led a mob protesting cow slaughter towards Parliament in an attempt to storm the complex. Seven people died and over 100 were injured after police fired on the protesters. The Upper House was not immune to such protests either. In 1971, the volatile Raj Narain – who had filed the election malpractice case against Indira Gandhi, which was one of the proximate causes of the Emergency, and defeated her from Rae Bareli in the 1977 general elections – had to be forcibly removed from the Upper House after disobeying the chair’s order.
The reasons for the progressive rise in disruptions are varied. The Indira Gandhi years can be seen as a critical moment for the undermining of institutions, including Parliament. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had once observed, “Pandit Nehru stayed away from the house only when it was absolutely unavoidable. She (Indira) attends Parliament only when she must.” This led the eminent political scientists, Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, to conclude, “Nehru was the schoolmaster of parliamentary government, Indira Gandhi its truant.” Besides the damaging effect of the Indira years, there are a host of reasons for the upturn in disruptions: the limited efficacy of the rules and disciplinary powers of successive Speakers; the more heterogeneous composition of Parliament compared to its first three decades of existence; the replacement of a dominant party system with a fragmented one where coalition governments were the norm; the televising of parliamentary proceedings; and an acceptance that disruptions were part of parliamentary and India’s political culture.
Disruptions also probably have something to do with the nature of India’s parliamentary democracy, which was once described by British Prime Minister Anthony Eden as “not a pale imitation of our practice at home, but a magnified and multiplied reproduction on a scale we have never dreamt of.” The scale and diversity of India have contributed to the cacophonous nature of Indian democracy, which in turn has found expression in Parliament. Indeed, while disruptions impact the functioning of Parliament, they are also a barometer of the robustness of Indian democracy.