Dilution of question hour questionable, say MPs

In a unique first since Parliament came into existence in 1950, the Narendra Modi government first scrapped Question Hour during the monsoon session which will commence on September 14 and end on October 1. After a hue and cry, the government later allowed unstarred questions to be asked, allowing written replies to questions, thereby prohibiting supplementary questions. The government also curtailed zero hour to a mere 30 minutes.

With one masterstroke, the Modi government has thwarted the people’s right to know how it functions by preventing opposition MPs from exposing irregularities through Question Hour. Opposition MPs have thereby been prevented from doing their duty to the nation. For the preamble of the Constitution declares sovereignty resides with the people of India, who have deputed their elected MPs to ask inconvenient questions to an inconvenienced government.

Question Hour is the very first hour of Parliament, during which opposition MPs question the ruling BJP on any aspect of governance or misgovernance, preserving democracy under Article 105 of the Constitution. Without actually doing so, the government has diluted Article 105, which confers rights and privileges on MPs by allowing only unstarred questions to be asked, prohibiting starred questions and curtailing zero hour. The BJP was applauded for scrapping Article 370 to integrate Kashmir with India but diluting Article 105 without actually doing so will earn it brickbats.

Inconvenient questions with the succeeding zero hour provoke heated discussions in Parliament—such as how the government intends to force the Chinese to vacate Indian territory. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on June 20 that “nobody entered Indian territory nor has any post been captured”, the government will have a tough time.

Zero hour starts at 12 noon in both houses of Parliament and members can, with prior notice to the Speaker, raise vital issues such as the contracting economy and the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases. Opposition MPs may elicit information from the government on any matter of public concern by asking questions. When an MP feels the answer given to a question, whether starred or unstarred or short-notice, needs elucidation, the Speaker may allow him to raise a discussion in the House for half-an-hour during zero hour.

This procedure is, therefore, termed ‘half-an-hour discussion’ which needs the presence of IAS officers who are conversant with the issues raised in the House. So, by scrapping Question Hour and curtailing zero hour to a mere 30 minutes on the pretext of reducing the visits of IAS officers to Parliament, the government is trying to justify what is unjustifiable.

The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha will function on Saturdays and Sundays, apart from weekdays, in two shifts — 9am to 1pm and 3pm to 7pm. Except for the first day, the Rajya Sabha will sit in the morning shift and the Lok Sabha will sit in the evening, So, Question Hour has been scrapped although the duration of the business hours has not been reduced.

If this prohibition of asking starred questions is challenged, courts have no jurisdiction to interfere with the sovereignty of Parliament because the Speaker is on a par with the Chief Justice of India (CJI) as far as regulating Parliamentary procedure is concerned. Although the apex court has reiterated several times that courts should not meddle with government policy or parliamentary procedure, it would be interesting to analyse how such writ petitions will be dealt with by the Supreme Court under Article 32 if aggrieved MPs opt to approach it.

The point here is Indians love to be deceived by our leaders who deny the truth or dilute it with rhetoric to make us live in a world of make-believe. For example, China will never vacate Indian territory they have usurped, without use of force. The government claims the Covid pandemic has caused the economy to go from plus to minus but the number of those contracting the virus has risen in India to 3.85 million cases, first with Amit Shah and later, Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant testing positive. The best way to avoid disclosures is to scrap question hour and curtail zero hour.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said questioning the government is the core of democracy. "I said four months ago that strongmen leaders would use the excuse of the pandemic to stifle democracy and dissent…..Questioning the government is the oxygen of parliamentary democracy. This government seeks to reduce Parliament to a notice-board and uses its crushing majority as a rubber-stamp for whatever it wants to pass. The one mechanism to promote accountability has now been scrapped," added the Congress MP from Kerala.

In Indian democracy, the government and the opposition each share 50 per cent of Parliament time. "The BJP wants to turn the Parliament of the people into M&S Private Limited (Modi and Shah Pvt Ltd). Under the Westminster model, 'Parliament belongs to the Opposition' as well as to the government," said Trinamool Congress Party MP Derek O’Brien. He refrained from saying the ensuing monsoon session of Parliament will now belong 100 per cent to the government.

Finally, though unrelated, Supreme Court Bar Association president Dushyant Dave protested because he was not allowed to speak at the online farewell to Supreme Court Justice Arun Mishra, who retired on Wednesday. Dave alleged the judges were afraid of the bar, which was why his microphone was muted several times, to prevent him from speaking.

Justice Mishra had adjourned a PIL filed by a doctor-turned-lawyer Subhash Vijayan, who wanted the apex court to declare there was no freedom of speech and expression in sub judice proceedings or even after. Perhaps Vijayan had outspoken lawyers like Dave in mind. Another petitioner, Sharad Datta Yadav, sought to withdraw his petition from the Supreme Court, seeking the withdrawal of Dave’s senior gown for his utterances while defending contemnor-advocate Prashant Bhushan. Yadav wanted to file it in the Gujarat high court, which had conferred the senior gown on Dave and taken it away from Yatin Oza.

Freedom must yield to power wielded by those who enact the law. And those who speak bluntly to those who wield power like Dushyant Dave must face the consequences.

The writer holds a PhD in media law and is a journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay high court.

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