Dr. Ambedkar famously said that the Parliament belongs to the Opposition. It is, therefore, important for presiding officers to be mindful of the vision of Dr. Ambedkar and take decisions concerning expunction so that the space given to the opposition is not compromised, and the government is held accountable to the legislature.
Why were the remarks of two Congress leaders in the Parliament last week expunged?
DURING his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi, the Indian National Congress’ Member of Parliament (MP) representing Wayanad in the Lok Sabha, repeated on many occasions the accusation that his microphone was being switched off whenever he spoke in the Lok Sabha to flag issues of public interest.
On February 7 this year, when he spoke in the House during his participation in the discussion on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address, his microphone was on throughout. In his 53 minute speech, he referred to the issue of the exponential rise of billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani’s wealth after 2014 and asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi several questions concerning Adani. What Gandhi said assumed enormous significance in the context of the recently-released report by investment research firm Hindenburg Research showing Adani’s stock manipulation and fudging of accounts over decades to amass wealth. Adani, of course, countered it and described the report as malicious and an attack on India.
Gandhi’s speech was impactful. The video of it was widely viewed and shared on social media platforms across the country.
While earlier Gandhi claimed that his mike used to be switched off whenever he spoke in the Lok Sabha, on February 8 he found to his utter dismay that many portions of his speech of the previous day had been expunged by the Lok Sabha Speaker, Om Birla. A surprised Gandhi asked reporters, “Why were my comments expunged?”
It was reported in the media that in all, eighteen remarks were expunged. Gandhi responded by tweeting a video clip of his speech in which he could be seen asking several questions of the Prime Minister concerning Adani. He tweeted, “Prime Minister, you cannot eliminate the voice of democracy. The people of India are asking you questions, give us answers.” (translated from the original Hindi).
“With the expunging of [Rahul Gandhi’s] remarks on PM-linked Adani MahaMegaScam deMOcracy was cremated in the Lok Sabha. OM Shanti,” tweeted Jairam Ramesh, Rajya Sabha MP and General Secretary in-charge, communications of the Congress party.
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While Gandhi’s questions to the Prime Minister were expunged, Bharatiya Janata Party Lok Sabha MP Ravi Shankar Prasad’s allegations about the Gandhi family being knee-deep in corruption, and Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju’s statement that Gandhi spoke China’s and Pakistan’s language were not.
Apart from Gandhi, even some portions of the speech of the Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha and Congress President Malikarjun Kharge were expunged by Rajya Sabha Chairman and Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankar. Kharge spoke while participating in the discussions on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address and raised some issues concerning Adani. Stating that he used no un-parliamentary words or levelled unfounded allegations, and some of the expressions he employed were earlier used even by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Kharge maintained that the things he said in the House were as per rules and procedures, and cannot be expunged.
Ramesh came to the defence of Kharge but Dhankhar did not allow him to do so. When Kharge told Dhankhar that whoever came to his defence faced interruption from the chair, Dhankhar said the ultimate defender of the Leader of Opposition is the Chair. Kharge responded by saying, “But that is not happening. …You are expunging.“
Rule 261 of the Rajya Sabha rules and Rule 380 of the Lok Sabha rules provide that if the presiding officer is of opinion that a word or words has or have been used in a debate which is or are defamatory or indecent or unparliamentary or undignified, they may, in their discretion, order that such word or words be expunged from the proceedings.
On February 11, Ramesh claimed that even his remarks in the Parliament were expunged, tweeting, “After [Kharge], it’s now my turn to have remarks expunged in Rajya Sabha, only because I asked the PM to authenticate his lies…”
Has the expunction of remarks of opposition leaders become the new normal?
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What are the rules concerning expunction of statements in the Parliament?
MPs cannot be dragged to courts and subjected to penal law or defamation law for what they say and how they vote in the Parliament or its committees. In fact, Article 105 of the Constitution states:
“(1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution and to the rules and standing orders regulating the procedure of Parliament, there shall be freedom of speech in Parliament.
(2) No member of Parliament shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in Parliament or any committee thereof, and no person shall be so liable in respect of the publication by or under the authority of either House of Parliament of any report, paper, votes or proceedings.”
It is clear that MPs have freedom of speech and they are protected by the Constitution from any proceedings in a court for what they say or how they vote.
However, their speeches are subjected to rules of procedure and conduct of business of both Houses of Parliament, and the Chair can decide to enforce those rules on them for the orderly conduct of the proceedings of the Parliament. A set of such rules deals with the expunction of words of the speeches they deliver inside the Houses of the Parliament.
In fact, both the Houses of Parliament have specific rules in their respective Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business. Rule 261 of the Rajya Sabha rules and Rule 380 of the Lok Sabha rules provide that if the presiding officer is of the opinion that a word or words has or have been used in a debate which is or are defamatory or indecent or unparliamentary or undignified, they may, in their discretion, order that such word or words be expunged from the proceedings.
It is clear that the Chair exercises discretion in taking the decision to expunge certain words from the proceedings of the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha, as the case may be, and that decision is final.
However, some rulings given by the Chairman, Rajya Sabha, throw light on the sound principles guiding the decision of the Chair to expunge or not to expunge words.
In 1977, the Rajya Sabha Chairman, while admitting that a defamatory remark was made by a Member, did not give a ruling to expunge it. He stated that on earlier occasions, such remarks had been made and so the “practice which has been going on for so long can only be set right by mutual consultation between the various parties in the House”.
For instance, on June 17, 1977 when during the course of the discussion calling attention to the alleged victimisation of journalists by various newspaper managements in the country, Bhupesh Gupta, then a Rajya Sabha MP and a leader of the Communist Party of India, alleged that newspaper publisher Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express group had accounts in Swiss and American banks. Another then Rajya Sabha MP, Viren J. Shah raised an objection by saying that the member made allegations against a person who was neither a member of the House nor could be present there. Shah sought expunction of the remarks made by Gupta and wanted the Chair to give a ruling on the matter.
The Deputy Chairman gave a ruling which is worth quoting in full:
“Shri Viren J. Shah has raised objection to certain remarks made by Shri Bhupesh Gupta on the ground that those remarks were defamatory allegations against Shri Goenka who is not present in the House. It is true that the remarks made by Shri Bhupesh Gupta are of a defamatory nature. But the practice, as it has developed in this House, is that remarks of this nature and similar nature have been made by all sections of the House. So, a practice which has been going on for so long can only be set right by mutual consultation between the various parties in the House. If the various parties in the House can come to a certain understanding as to the interpretation and implementation of the rule quoted by Shri Shah and the practices followed in this regard, I think that would be the best way of getting round this difficulty rather than giving any clear-cut ruling at this point. So, I would request various parties and groups in this House kindly to sit together, see the implications of the rule that has been quoted and go into the various implications of implementing this. It is only with the cooperation from various sections of the House that the rules can be observed or implemented by the Chair. So, I will end with a plea that mutual discussions on this particular point are really called for. If an agreement is arrived at, I think that would be the best way of getting out of this problem.”
The above ruling makes it clear that the Chairman, while admitting that a defamatory remark was made by a Member, did not give a ruling to expunge it. He stated that on earlier occasions, such remarks had been made and so the “practice which has been going on for so long can only be set right by mutual consultation between the various parties in the House”.
That ruling of 1977 assumes intense significance in the context of the decisions of the Speaker, Lok Sabha and Chairman, Rajya Sabha, to expunge words from the speeches of Gandhi and Kharge, respectively.
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Why is such expunction worrisome?
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar famously said in the Constituent Assembly that the Parliament belongs to the Opposition. It is, therefore, important for presiding officers to be mindful of the vision of Dr. Ambedkar in taking decisions concerning expunction so that the space given to the opposition is not compromised and the government is held accountable to the legislature.
This is the essence of parliamentary democracy, which is part of the basic structure of the Constitution.