The Winter Session of Parliament began on a stormy note on Monday with the Opposition seeking to corner the treasury benches on a raft of issues ranging from Kashmir to the state of the economy, as the government held out assurances that it was open to discussing all issues.
The Rajya Sabha started its landmark 250th session with Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalling the Upper House’s role in passing bills that revoked J&K’s special status and cautioning against obstructionism.
“The Rajya Sabha is about checks and balances. This is absolutely essential for our democracy. Debates have to be many and effective. But, there is also a difference between checking and clogging [and between] balance and blocking,” he said.
Both Houses paid tribute to former Union ministers Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj.
Speaking before the opening of the Parliament session, PM Modi hoped the session, which will run until December 13, will be productive.
“We want frank discussions on all matter. It is important that there should be quality debates, there should be dialogues and discussions, everyone should contribute to enrich the discussions in Parliament,” he said.
The government plans to bring 27 bills during the session, including the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that seeks to grant citizenship to refugees from religious minorities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On its first day, the Lok Sabha was rocked by protests by some opposition parties, which demanded that Srinagar MP Farooq Abdullah, who is under preventive custody in Kashmir under the Public Safety Act, be allowed to attend the Parliament session.
Many MPs made statements about the noxious air that has engulfed large swathes of northern India this winter.
Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar arrived in an electric car, Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi wore a mask as a mark of protest, and BJP MPs Mansukh Mandaviya and Manoj Tiwari rode bicycles to Parliament.
Pollution is set to be the focus of the second day of the winter session with the Lok Sabha discussing on Tuesday ways to combat the haze of toxic gases engulfing Delhi.
The BJP’s estranged ally, the Shiv Sena, staged a walkout from the Lok Sabha after protesting against the central government’s handling of agricultural distress. The party also moved to the Opposition benches in both Houses of Parliament.
The Centre moved the Chit Fund (Amendment) Bill, 2019 for passage in the Lok Sabha, but this was opposed by the Trinamool Congress.
Opposition parties also questioned the government over the state of the economy. As Question Hour started in the Lok Sabha, Aam Aadmi Party MP Bhagwant Mann asked minister of state for finance, Anurag Thakur whether the government is ready to accept that the country is facing “economic depression”.
“Is government ready to accept that the nation is going through a phase of economic depression,” Mann said.
At the meeting of the leaders of Rajya Sabha, the Opposition demanded that every week there should be at least one debate on issues raised by the Opposition. Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien said, “Thirteen parties have submitted notice for discussion on Indian economy and its remedy. The Congress has given its own notice and other 12 parties, including TMC, Shiv Sena, DMK, SP and RJD have given another notice. We hope to see the debate in next two days.”
Within minutes of commencement of the Question Hour, around 30 members from the Congress trooped into the Well of the House, shouting slogans and demanding that the government stop foisting “false cases” on opposition leaders.
Members of the Congress, National Conference, Trinamool Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam also raised Abdullah’s absence from the House.
“We want that he [Abdullah] be brought to the Parliament. It is his constitutional right,” said Congress floor leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury as the Congress and TMC gave notices of an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha.
Choudhury also criticised the recent visit by a group of European Union lawmakers to the Kashmir Valley. “Our leader Rahul Gandhi was not allowed to visit the Valley, but European leaders were given permission. Kashmir is an internal issue, but this government has made it an international issue,” the Berhampore MP said.
He brought up a statement by Union home minister Amit Shah from the monsoon session that Abdullah was not under detention, but was interrupted by speaker Om Birla, who said Shah was correct. The written information of his detention was received later by the Lok Sabha secretariat, Birla added.
DMK leader TR Baalu sought Birla’s intervention in the matter, saying the speaker was the custodian of the House and should ensure that members are allowed to attend Parliament sessions. “What has happened with Farooq is illegal…You are custodian of the House…You have to make intervention,” Baalu said, as many Opposition members rushed to the Well and others were seen standing in their seats and shouting slogans.
Birla told the protesting members that they would be given an opportunity to raise issues within rules after the Question Hour. “I am ready to discuss all issues. Please go to your seats… This House is not for sloganeering but for debates and discussions,” Birla said.
Parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi sought to pacify the protesting members, saying the government was ready for any discussion. “Let the Speaker decide and (there can be) discussion under rules,” Joshi.
Chowdhury also raised the issue of withdrawal of Special Protection Group cover of former prime minister Manmohan Singh and the Gandhi family. A number of other parties sought to raise issues of jobs and the current economic slowdown.
In the Rajya Sabha, the PM lauded the Biju Janata Dal and the Nationalist Congress Party for never rushing into the well of the House to protest and emphasised the role of the Upper House in preserving national unity and federalism.
“Our Constitution inspires us to work for a welfare state. It also motivates us to work for the welfare of states. The Rajya Sabha, as the Council of States, enables us to further the spirit of cooperative federalism,” he said.
The 250th session of the Upper House was marked by a special discussion on “Role of Rajya Sabha in Indian Polity and the Need for Reforms”. According equal representation to states and scraping time limit to speak in debates in the House were some of the suggestions made by members.
During the discussion, former prime minister Manmohan Singh said the Rajya Sabha should have a greater say in legislations dealing with redrawing boundaries of states but didn’t name Jammu and Kashmir, which was recently bifurcated into two Union Territories.
Concluding the nearly five-hour long discussion, vice-president Venkaiah Naidu advised the members to improve their attendance, pay attention and not create tension. “There are some people who always enjoy attention. If you have tension you cannot pay attention. That’s why be peaceful, quite and calm,” Naidu said in his concluding remarks.