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I Saw Parliament Turn Into a Panic Room. Can the Govt Guarantee Its MPs’ Safety?

In a parliamentary democracy, the primary accountability of the government is to Parliament, and not the media.

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The security breach in the Lok Sabha on 13 December has created a crisis in Parliament. It has:

  • exposed the deeply inadequate security measures in place in the new Parliament building;

  • crystallised many MPs’ concerns about the layout and arrangements of the redesigned premises to which they have been shifted; and

  • provoked serious opposition objections and disruption, which has in turn resulted in the suspension of 14 members of Parliament in the course of Thursday, the day after the incident. 

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On Wednesday afternoon, having spoken under Zero Hour, I was on my way out of the Lok Sabha chamber when I heard a commotion. Someone was dangling from the visitors’ gallery and attempting to leap onto the floor of the House. Within a minute, he was bounding across the desktops, releasing yellow smoke into the air from a contraption in his hand. A second intruder joined him.

As I watched for a moment from the door, a panicky TMC MP behind me started screaming, "Poison gas!” I thought the wisest thing to do, especially in case she was right, was to continue on my way out.

MPs meanwhile got hold of the intruders and thrashed them. One plucky MP, my INC colleague Gurjeet Singh Aujla, snatched one of the smoke canisters from an intruder, scalding his hand and staining it yellow in the process.
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What Followed the Security Breach in Parliament?

The incident was over in minutes, the men detained (along with two of their accomplices outside) and the House was adjourned. When we reassembled after lunch, I addressed the Lok Sabha on the Postal Bill, with which I had grave concerns.

Meanwhile, the acrid smell of the smoke was lingering, and no sooner had the lead BJP speaker finished his response, than the Opposition MPs raised their voices to demand a discussion on the earlier events.
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The Speaker, who had excused himself and been replaced by an interim chair, resumed his seat, announced a meeting with all floor leaders at 4, and adjourned the debate. At 4, the various Opposition leaders demanded a debate on the security issue and a statement by the Home Minister. With no agreement on the matter, the house was again adjourned.

On Thursday morning, things took a negative turn. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Minister was in sight; the Opposition began clamouring for the latter to make a statement.

A few anodyne words from the Defence Minister were shouted down. Amid the bedlam, the Speaker suspended several MPs and adjourned the House again.

The same pattern repeated itself on Thursday afternoon.

By the end of the day, 14 MPs were suspended for the rest of the session. In an excess of zeal, so was a 15th, the DMK’s SR Parthiban, who was at home nursing a cold and not even present when he was "named” for suspension. (His suspension was later revoked by an embarrassed Speaker.)

Friday morning has begun with another adjournment. The question is: where do we go from here?

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Home Minister’s Avoiding the Security Crisis Is Disruptive

The Opposition’s demands are quite reasonable. The government argues that arrangements in the Lok Sabha are the responsibility of the Speaker and not the Home Minister. That’s all very well, but the Delhi Police, seven of whose officers were suspended in the wake of the security breach, report to the Home Minister, not the Speaker.

And the Home Minister has been busy issuing statements on the matter to the media, rather than to the House of which he is a member.

In a parliamentary system, the primary accountability of the government is to Parliament. When it is in session, it is to Parliament that the Prime Minister and his ministers must address themselves, and not to the media.

The Home Minister’s stubborn refusal to attend the House and speak there – even if only to tell the Lok Sabha what he is instead currently saying in the press – is at the heart of the current dispute. Had he done so on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, the dispute would have been resolved and the crisis defused.
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The Opposition had come to the Winter Session fully intending to co-operate with the running of the House and conscious that important legislation needed to be debated. We were participating in every debate in a constructive spirit.

It is the refusal of the government to even discuss the security situation with the people who are most affected by it, the MPs, that has put us where we are.
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Structure of the New Parliament Building Is a Key Factor Behind the Lapse

There was already widespread dissatisfaction with the arrangements in the New Parliament building. Too many people were using the same entrance as the MPs and large crowds were milling about in the foyer, the entry turnstiles, and the steps leading to the House. MPs commented that they missed the sense of exclusivity they enjoyed in the old Parliament.

The cavernous new building had the look of a convention hall rather than exuding the grace and gravitas of a legislative chamber. The teeming throngs at the entrance compounded the MPs’ sense of insecurity.
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The proximity of the lowest portion of the visitors’ gallery to the chamber, and the absence of any barrier between the gallery and the chamber, clearly facilitated the security breach.

The fact that the intruders were armed with a pass signed by a BJP MP, Pratap Simha, has added to MPs’ concern. So has the fact that they were able to smuggle smoke canisters in. Someone else could easily have brought grenades, pistols, or poisonous gas the same way. The quality of the screening and the number of police personnel on duty were both clearly deficient.

The fact that MPs, not security personnel, were the ones to intercept and detain the intruders was also worrying for many parliamentarians. Where were the custodians of their security?
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The Government Must Address the MPs Immediately

Some of these issues have been promptly addressed. The Makar Dwar –one of the six gates is now restricted to the MPs alone; even their staff will have to enter from other doorways. Visitors have been banned temporarily from the galleries. Rumours suggest that shatter-proof glass may be installed before they are allowed back in. Seven cops have been suspended. A security review is underway.

But the agitating MPs want proof the government is taking the matter seriously enough. They want a discussion to be scheduled to vent their concerns, and for the Home Minister to address them.

In a parliamentary democracy, these are modest demands. That they are not being met, and those making them are being suspended instead, is a sad reflection of the current state of our parliamentary democracy.

(Former UN Under-Secretary-General, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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