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[Blog] Phokeer and Om Birla

On December 18–19, the Speaker of Lok Sabha, Om Birla,  suspended 141 members of the Indian lower and upper houses of Parliament. All of them belong to the opposition parties.


The motive? Some of the parliamentarians failed to condemn an incident that took place on Dec 13, whereas others came in support of their suspended colleagues. This caused "unruly behaviour". The incident referred to was about a breach of Parliament building when 2 men jumped from the press gallery into the hall and released gas canisters to "protest the failure of the elected officials to debate inflation, unemployment and ethnic violence in Manipur".

The irony is that the parliamentarian who gave entry passes to the 2 protesters to gain access to Parliament belongs to the ruling BJP party. Yet no action was taken against him. This seemingly partisan attitude reminds us, in certain ways, of the fissiparous behaviour of the Mauritian Speaker of the House, Sooroojdev Phokeer, who expels members of the Opposition "à tour de bras" at almost every session without most of the time sermonizing or sanctioning those in government. 

However, the apparent parallel between the 2 Speakers ends here. Anyone who has watched the debates in the Indian houses of Parliament would have noticed the almost Olympian calmness of Om Birla, his avoidance of rude language, the restraint in his voice (not a loudspeaker indeed) and his propensity to give enough leeway to opposition members to express their points of view and develop their ideas as long as they are relevant.

Nevertheless, this unprecedented suspension of such a huge number of opposition parliamentarians has been widely condemned in India. Vijay Prasad, who has co-authored (together with Noam Chomsky) the book entitled 'The withdrawal: Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power' has called the suspension" the suffocation of democracy in India ", especially as it has come in the wake of several attacks on free press which is critical of government. For example, on Dec 18, the Income Tax Department raided the office of the popular news website, newsclick and "virtually froze its accounts", thus crippling it from its ability to pay its staff and meet running expenses. On October 3, its founder Prabir Parkayasta and administrative officer, Amit Chakraborty, were both arrested and are still in detention.  This aroused the ire of N. Ram, the former editor of the widely read Hindu, who wrote "this marks a new low for press freedom in my country which has been caught…in a state-engineered Mc Carthyte campaign of disinformation, scaremongering and vilification...".

In May 2023, 10 organizations, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, published a document purporting that laws on terrorism and sedition were being used abusively to intimidate journalists and silence media critical of government policies. It also intimated that technology such as Pegasus was being utilised to "spy on reporters" whose "private communications" were being used  "for legal actions against them".

The situation is no better in neighbouring Pakistan, if not worse.

Source: CounterPunch

Azize Bankur


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