In an unprecedented disruption of its affairs, the lower house of India’s Parliament was adjourned today after a member used his pepper spray in protest. The Member of Parliament (MP) in question, Lagadapati Rajagopal, belongs to a faction of Congress MPs that is against the bifurcation of the state of Andhra Pradesh in south India. The Telengana bill, which aims to carve out a new state from Andhra Pradesh, has disrupted Parliament several times in the past but this attempt left several members coughing and wiping tears as they rushed out.
To begin with, the Telengana bill was introduced by Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde amid loud slogans and verbal clashes between members. The house, which had to be adjourned within five minutes of the bill’s introduction, was reconvened later. Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar was reading out the names of 16 MPs, from the Seemandhra region, suspended for disrupting Parliamentary proceedings when the violence broke out. Telugu Desam Party MP Venugopala Reddy smashed the glass cover of an electronic device (used to count division of votes) and MP Rajagopal used a can of pepper spray on the house. Reports that there was a knife wielded by some Telengana MPs against Reddy are yet to be confirmed. However, Rajagopal claimed that he used the spray to defend Reddy who, according to him, was being attacked with a knife.
The Lok Sabha was immediately adjourned for an hour so that the massive hall could be aired out. A doctor was brought in to tend to the members who were reduced to bouts of severe coughing and tearing up. Some had to be taken to a nearby hospital after they complained of irritation in their eyes and throats caused by the lachrymatory substance.
Informing the media persons gathered outside the house about the events, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said the “circumstances and incidents which took place in the House are a big blot on our parliamentary democracy” and that he was ashamed of the incident. He also said that he heard there was a knife and other kinds of weapons used inside the house but could not confirm it. The strongest possible action against the defecting members has been demanded by several MPs and it would be according to the discretion of the Speaker, he added.
The incident has sparked a new debate on whether members should be frisked before entering the house. At the moment, there are no rules to that effect because “framers of the Constitution had never expected such kind of behavior from sitting members of the House,” Nath told reporters.
In its editorial, titled Dealing with new lows, The Hindu has noted that security forces at the Parliament may have been prepared to face what many described as ditch efforts to disrupt proceedings when the controversial bill was introduced. While the security measures were in place because one member had threatened to set himself on fire, nobody expected that weapons would actually be taken into the Parliament and used.
The Telengana bill may have been introduced while many members were coughing or rushing out in tears, but it is now a property of the Parliament according to the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. However, there isn’t much confidence that the bill will be passed in this session as the party was divided on regional lines.
In fact, the 15th Lok Sabha (which is in session) has been named the least productive in the past 25 years: A study by PRS Legislative Research, a non-governmental organization, shows that only 72 per cent of the allotted time has been productively used by the Lok Sabha so far. The study also revealed that many bills passed in the 15th Lok Sabha were debated for less than five minutes.
Some of the biggest disruptions took place when the country was rocked by an endless number of scams beginning with the 2G specturm allocation scam. Since then, the Lok Sabha has been held ransom number of times by scams in coal block allocation and issues regarding black money and violence in Mumbai. According to the study, for every hour that is disrupted in Parliament, the estimated damages to the exchequer runs into millions. There is no telling how much the Telengana bill, which was tabled in the midst of tears and coughs, will cost the Indian Parliament.
By Aruna Iyer