Servant of the house, not master

By Inder Jit

(Released on 25 August 1981)

Parliament’s eagerly-awaited monsoon session got off expectedly to a stormy start, Visitors who crowded the public galleries in the Lok Sabha got their money’s-worth, so to say, on the opening day and during the week. The Treasury benches and the Opposition clashed repeatedly amid tumult and shouting. At one stage, even MrJagjivan Ram was provoked to jump to his feet and protest. Interestingly, both sides of the House appear to be quite pleased with the outcome of the first week. The government is happy that the Opposition failed to come together in time and push it into the dock through a motion of no confidence. The Opposition is pleased with the headlines it was able to catch by its walk-out on Ordinance Raj and on the Garhwal poll. But veteran observers and some thinking MPs are far from happy. They see the Lok Sabha facing a new challenge to its supremacy — this time from within the House itself. The Speaker is essentially the servant of the House. But he is fast becoming its master, thanks to the rules of procedure.

Expectedly, the Opposition came forward on the opening day with adjournment motions reflecting strong public feeling over spiralling prices, the recent hike in the rates of petroleum products and the scandalous happenings in the Garhwal by-election to the Lok Sabha. However, all these motions were summarily rejected by the Speaker, Mr Bal Ram Jakhar, barring one which related to railway accidents. An adjournment motion is intended to enable the Opposition to raise a matter of urgent public importance by interrupting the regular business of the House. But the Speaker ignored all pleadings of the Opposition and firmly ruled: “Adjournment motions are going to be disallowed or accepted by me. That is my discretion and I am going to use it.” On Tuesday, the Speaker again asserted his right to sit in judgement over adjournment motions and said: “I know my job.” When MrJyotirmoyBosu referred to the practice in the Commons and argued that the Speaker was forcibly shutting out a discussion on the Garhwal poll, MrJakhar rule: “You may say the rule is like this. I say the rule is like this.”

There is no gainsaying the fact that the rules of procedure give the Speaker absolute discretion to admit an adjournment motion or not. However, experts feel that the speaker’s approach during the past week ignores much that is expected of him in accordance with time-honoured conventions. The Speaker in India enjoys under the rules greater power than any other Speaker. But this extraordinary power was given to him by Nehru and other founding fathers of the Constitution for a purpose: to guide the proceedings of the House effectively in the formative period and to help build healthy conventions and a strong Opposition in the best national interest. In particular, they wanted the Speaker to be able to protect the minority in the House from being steam-rollered by the brute majority. Mavalankar as the first Speaker was strict in admitting adjournment motions. But incredible as may seem in today’s India he allowed once an adjournment motion against Sardar Patel, then Home Minister, to discuss the escape of Mir Laik Ali, Prime Minister of Hyderabad, from India.

Thirty-four years have rolled by since India attained freedom, sadly, however, the basic concept of Parliamentary democracy is still not adequately understood.  Parliamentary democracy is Government by discussion and Parliament is there to serve the best interest of the nation, not of any one party. Both the Government and the Opposition have equally important roles to play — and to show a certain willingness to compromise and accommodate. It is undoubtedly the Government’s prerogative to initiate legislation and other official business. But the Opposition also has the right to initiate discussions of its choice and also bring forward bills. This right is not only conceded fully to the Opposition in Britain but actively exercised by it. The power of adjournment vests in the House of Commons and not in the Speaker as in India. The Commons consequently adjourns on a formal motion at the end of each sitting. This provides the Opposition an opportunity to bring forward an adjournment motion every day, if it so chooses, through a simple motion to the effect: “The House adjourns to discuss….”

Unlike in India, the Commons is not at the mercy of the Speaker for the admission of such motions. These are admitted when a minimum number of members ask for a discussion. In India too, an adjournment motion has to have the support of at least fifty MPs to get the leave of the House. But the Speaker enjoys the discretion initially to admit the motion or not. This right has often been exercised arbitrarily as the adjournment motions have over the years come to be viewed as some kind of a houaa to be shunned. True, adjournment motions acquired an inbuilt element of censure in the Central Assembly in the pre-independence days since there was no scope then for a motion of no-confidence. But these motions need not be viewed so any more. Instead, they should be seen as an effective device for the Opposition to raise discussions on urgent issues agitating the public. The Government may have a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha today. But let it be remembered that the Opposition together polled over 56 per cent of the votes cast in the last general election.

The House enjoys supremacy over the Speaker and there is no scope for any confusion in the matter. In 1967, the Speaker of the West Bengal Assembly, Mr Bijoy Bannerji, paralysed the State legislature by arbitrarily adjourning the House. Not long thereafter in 1968, the Speaker of the Puniab Assembly, Mr Joginder Singh Mann, too created an unprecedented situation by adjourning the House, taking advantage of the rules. Both, however, went beyond the established conventions under which the House and not the Speaker is the master. This is borne out by the long and chequered history of the Commons which in manyways is a saga of the struggle between the House and the Speaker, once the nominee of the King, who went all out to oblige his lord and master. India’s Parliamentary system is based on the British pattern and there is, Indeed, hardly a situation which is without a parallel in the history of the Commons. In fact, as far back as March 2, 1629, the Commons witnessed some extraordinary scenes, which settled once and for all the supremacy ofthe House.

These happenings deserve to be recalled in the light of what transpired in West Bengal and in Punjab — or might come to pass again in some states or at the centre. According to the Office of Speaker, when the Commons reassembled after the recess, the Speaker rose to his feet immediately after prayers had been read and informed the members that His Majesty had ordered a further adjournment until March 10. There were cries of ‘No’ from all sides of the House and Sir John Eliot rose to speak. But the Speaker, remaining on his feet, informed the House that the King ‘had laid an absolute command upon him, that the House should be presently adjourned without any speech or other proceedings, and that if any House did offer to speak after the message was delivered, he should instantly leave the Chair.’ The Speaker then made to move away from the Chair, but for the long suffering Commons, this was too much. Holles and valentine jumped up, grabbed him and thrust him back into the Chair, remaining at his side for the remainder proceedings, Holles swearing that ‘by God’s wounds he should still until they pleased to rise.’

Eliot then spoke, asserted the right of the House to adjourn itself, and tendered a declaration which he had prepared with the request that it be bread. The Speaker again tried to leave the Chair, pointing out that the Commons had in the past always obeyed a Royal Command that they should adjourn, which was quite true. But Valentine and Holles held him down and insisted that Eliot’s Declaration should be read. Abjectly the Speaker pleaded with the House not to press him…. But all that this plea induced was a torrent of censure. One member proposed that Finch (Speaker) should be replaced… Eliot asserted that he was in contempt of the House and threatened to bring him to the Bar and have him judged a delinquent. Eventually, “Holles, determined that members should not disperse before the resolutions contained in Elliot’s declaration had been put to them, delivered them from memory and put them to the vote. They were carried by the House which then voted its own adjournment.”

The House is unquestionably the master of its own procedure and the Speaker is no more than its spokesman and subject to its control. Our Constitution recognizes this and Article 212 provides that “the validity of any proceedings in the Legislature shall not be called in question on the ground of any alleged irregularity of procedure.” Thus both in West Bengal and in Punjab the Assembly members would have been within their right to stay put in the House’ (or to break into the locked chamber) and physically hold the Speaker in the Chair. In the absence of the Speaker, business could always be transacted either with the Deputy Speaker in the Chair or by electing a Chairman. There is no doubt a danger of physical violence in this procedure — especially where a section of the Assembly backs the Speaker. But there appears to be no alternative, so long as the Speaker’s powers are not strictly defined and no scope left for any illusion on the part of the Presiding officers. (The week also witnessed protests in the Rajya Sabha against certain decisions of the Deputy Chairman.)

Where does one go from here? Experts are agreed that a fresh look needs to be taken at the powers of the Speaker in the light of experience and supremacy of the House established. An acknowledged authority asserts that the Speaker has “no right” to Expunge anything other than what is unparliamentary or to direct that this will not go on record.” This, he adds strikes at the freedom of speech guaranteed to members. Some of these matters are not new and were once considered by the All India Whips’ Conference. In fact, according to experts, there should be no difficulty in amending the rules appropriately and among other things, to provide for a weekly allotment of time for the Opposition. (The latter almost came to be accepted in 1974.) Ultimately, two things must be assured. First, the Opposition must have adequate opportunity to initiate discussions on subjects of its choice. Second, the position of the House vis a vis the Speaker must be made clear once and for all, as was sought to be done by the All India Speakers’ Conference in April 1968. The Speaker is the servant of the House, not its master!  — INFA