By Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE | 28 December 2023 (IDN) — India’s national Parliament—known as Lok Sabha (Lower House of the People)—has become a “mockery of democracy,” says the main opposition party Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge following a splurge of expulsions of their members from the chambers before important criminal law reform bills were debated and passed by the legislator.
The Indian Parliament witnessed a historic number of suspensions earlier this month as 141 opposition lawmakers were suspended for disrupting proceedings, following an incident on 13 December where two intruders entered the Lok Sabha from the visitor’s gallery, releasing some gas and shouting anti-government slogans, raising serious concerns about parliamentary security.
Opposition demands for the government to account for the security breaches were met by rowdy scenes in the chambers that resulted in suspensions extending to the upper chamber of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.
Kharge blasted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in a statement released on X (Twitter) for allegedly suppressing dissent and rushing important legislation without proper debate. “The suspension of a total of 141 Opposition MPs from Parliament reinforces our charge that an autocratic BJP wants to demolish democracy in this country. We all know that key Bills like the criminal law amendments, which unleash draconian powers and impede citizens’ rights, are listed,” he said on X.
The wave of suspensions
The wave of suspensions thinned the opposition benches in the Lok Sabha, creating an almost empty assembly on a day dedicated to legislative reforms. The Parliament passed the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita Bill, 2023, which seeks to reform criminal laws by replacing some of India’s existing British colonial-era criminal procedure laws. On 20 December, when the Lok Sabha passed some criminal reform laws, the Congress-led Opposition INDIA bloc had only 43 members in the legislative chambers.
The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has justified the suspensions, arguing that the opposition MPs have insulted both the Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and Rajya Sabha Chairman Jagdeep Dhankar inside the parliamentary chambers.
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi, a veteran reporter of Congress affairs writing in Decca Herald, argues that the mass suspension of parliamentary members for the first time in India’s history does not augur well for democracy in the country.
“The move exhibits the unbridled powers of a ruling party having a brute majority in Parliament. In the past, such large-scale suspensions took place when the Congress government led by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, had an overwhelming majority in Parliament,” he noted, pointing out that 63 members were suspended on 15 March 1989 when they “created a ruckus” over the tabling of a report on the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (in 1984) where the panel has raised doubts on the role of two of her close associates and the government refused to conduct a thorough investigation into it.
“More than 34 years later, the ruling BJP seems to be following in the Congress’ footage,” says Naqshbandi, who argues that the “conduct of the Opposition seeking a response from the Government can be questioned but at same time, their demand for the home minister’s statement cannot be termed unparliamentary.”
There are less than six months for national elections for the Lok Sabha, and with massive electoral victories in three crucial state elections in Northern India in early December, the BJP is brimming with confidence while the opposition INDIA alliance is in disarray, even though Congress won two Southern Indian states.
“BJP is self-assured of returning to power,” notes political scientist Ajay K. Mehra, a senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. “However, the road ahead for India’s parliamentary democracy appears rugged and bumpy.”
An extreme measure
“Expulsion of an elected member from either house is an extreme measure, and if not done prudently, it shows a brazen disregard of the popular will,” adds Mehra. “Let alone negotiating a strategy with the opposition benches for smooth functioning, the presiding officers of the two houses are summarily suspending the members for the entire session. Obviously, the impartial and efficacious conduct of the proceedings of the houses is in peril. Are the chairman of the Rajya Sabha (vice president of India) and the speaker of the Lok Sabha playing partisan cards?’ he asks.
It is not only the Parliament that is being muzzled; the media is facing the same music, and YouTube is the only avenue remaining for independent journalism, say some senior mainstream media personalities who have recently left their jobs when business cronies of the Modi government have either taken over their media or have been intimidated to tow the government line.
One of them is India’s best-known TV current affairs journalist, Ravish Kumar, formerly of NDTV—for which he worked for 27 years. In the past year, he has been subjected to death threats from supporters of the Modi government, and NDTV was about to be taken over by a family oligarch known to be a very close associate of Modi when he decided to quit.
Thus, in August, he announced on his YouTube channel that he was leaving NDTV because he did not want to be part of what he calls the “Godi Media”—the media that sings praises of the Modi government.
“I feel like the bird that has lost its nest because someone else snatched it away,” he said. While thanking his viewers for decades of support, he warned his fans to be wary of the authoritarian forces dividing the country. “What we have [in India] today is truly the dark age of journalism,” he said. “Our media ecosystem has been gutted and destroyed.”
In a long feature report published on 19 December in restofworld.org, reporter Sonia Faleiro wrote that Kumar is one of several high-profile Indian journalists who have left mainstream media organizations over the past few years and turned to YouTube and other social media platforms instead.
“These journalists see their own channels as the only way to continue their work in a country where the government is hounding noncompliant media out of their jobs,” she noted, adding that when the election campaign comes, social media may be the last space to share unbiased news. “The idea is to report the news the old-school way,”
Faye D’Souza, a former executive editor at the media company Times Network, told Rest of World that you need “to calmly tell people what is going on.” But going solo could be punishing work, and a YouTube channel or Instagram account offers different protections than working for a mainstream media company: There is little financial security, legal support, or physical protection, he noted.
Faleiro says, “Alone in their own homes, several of India’s best-known journalists told the Rest of the World, they are fearful for their future.” [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: Ravish Kumar, one of several high-profile Indian journalists, who have left mainstream media organizations over the past few years and turned to YouTube and other social media platforms instead. These journalists see their own channels as the only way to continue their work in a country where the government is hounding noncompliant media out of their jobs. Source: Rest of the World
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