Thought-provoking Symposium on
Role of Parliament in Modern Democratic India
L-R: Mr. Abu Saleh Shariff, Dr. Subhash Kashyap, Justice Rajinder Sachar, Prof. Afzal Wani, Dr. M. Manzoor Alam, Prof. Z.M. Khan and Prof. Manzoor Ahmad
Concern widespread on the decline of Parliament and other democratic institutions
New Delhi, Feb. 5: The oft-repeated cliché “Founding Fathers of the Constitution” should be changed to “Founding Fathers and Mothers of the Constitution” in the interest of fair-play and gender justice, former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, Justice Rajindar Sachar, said here today.
Justice Sachar made this remark during his presidential address at the inaugural session of a symposium on the “Role of Parliament in Modern Democratic India” at the India Islamic Cultural Centre. The symposium was organised by the Institute of Objective Studies.
He said we had copied and internalised the expression “Founding Fathers” of the US Constitution. The fact remained that in our case we had some remarkable women among founders of our Constitution, like Begum Anisa Kidwai, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Sucheta Kirplani.
He said that there had to be some clarity about the actual position of Parliament among the other two centres of power, executive and judiciary. It was generally understood that as the representative of the people, Parliament was supposed to be the sole repository of “people’s sovereignty”.
Justice Sachar said that was an erroneous impression as the judiciary and executive, too, drew upon the same source of sovereignty, that is, “We the People of India”.
At the time of zamindari abolition and nationalisation of banks (the first under Pandit Nehru, the second under Indira Gandhi) the judiciary intervened on points of propriety. Both Nehru and Indira asserted and got the legislation through.
On the extensive criminalisation of politics he observed that now it had turned to “politicisation of crime”. He explained: “Earlier, politicians used criminals for their purposes. Now the criminals, instead of working for politicians, have themselves joined politics”.
He quoted Mahatma Gandhi who, in exasperation, said about a similar situation, “How long can the people tolerate?” The impasse in current Parliament was testing the nerves of the people of India, whose money was being drained by reckless MPs.
He said that MPs should forego their salaries and allowances for the days on which no business was conducted. “As Parliament is a single entity, all members should be penalised for the conduct of a section of them”.
He also raised the issue of privilege of MPs, which in many ways could be “excessive, out of proportion and unrealistic”. Modeled as they were on British House of Commons privileges, the courts could not do away with them. However, the citizens of India should now say, “this far, and no further”.
He said the law of representation should be amended to bring in people of cleaner record, women and minorities. “Also, first-past-the-pole is no longer appropriate. Something akin to the German model is more suitable”.
Former secretary general of Parliament, Dr Subhash Kashyap, said the “winter session was wiped out” and Parliament became dysfunctual. A historian of Parliament and expert on parliamentary procedures, Dr Kashyap clarified that government (Executive) and Parliament (Legislature) were not two different things in reality. “Government comes from Parliament, which has the responsibility to give the country a government”.
This august institution was in decline as shown by many indicators, he said. “The decline is qualitative and quantitative”. Earlier, 49 percent of Parliament’s time was spent in law-making. Now it had come down to 13 percent.
The quality of laws had suffered as very few members took care to read and discuss bills before passing them. Over the last few years the requirement of quorum (the presence of a minimum number of members in the House during the session) had been ignored and bills had been passed with as few as seven, twelve or fifteen MPs present in the Lok Sabha. “Members do not care, do not attend”. For over 30 years no private member’s bill had been passed while government bills were passed unthinkingly.
“Representational credentials of MPs have become doubtful as 70 percent of winners have won with minority votes”, Dr Kashyap said.
“Parliament no longer controls government, it is the other way round. Parliament has no financial control over the government. Hundreds of financial demands are passed in hours, even the whole budget is passed within minutes. In the early 50s, the budget was only in lakhs. Today, it is in hundreds of thousands of crore of rupees”. That called for greater care, which was not shown.
With over 20 well-defined functions, Parliament was not just a legislative body, he said. It has a grievance redressal role, a conflict resolution role. In the past it has done some great work in the resolution of social and national conflicts.
It has played a great role in national integration. Representatives from all over India, from different political, religious, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, come here to mix and fraternise. “Integrating imperceptibly, even sesessionists dropped the idea of sesession”, he said.
Parliament has also been a leadership-training ground for future statesmen. For instance, as a member of foreign affairs committee, one could learn enough to end up as a foreign minister. The same holds true for other committees.
The decline in parliamentary standards was a recurring theme in Dr Kashyap’s narrative. The number of Lok Sabha MPs with a criminal background had been on the increase over the years. “The number of MPs with a criminal background in the last Lok Sabha was 125, but in this Lok Sabha we have 175”.
Ironically, representing a country with the world’s largest number of illiterates, and the world’s largest number of poor, “the present Lok Sabha has 300 crorepatis”. Dr Kashyap said the Lok Sabha was full of members representing the “elitist civil society” not “We, the People of India”.
As one lakh villages did not have access to safe drinking water even today, Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of “provision of drinkable drinking water to every villager in every village” remained a distant dream. A Parliament in such disarray could hardly lead the way to real progress, he concluded.
Former diplomat and parliamentarian Syed Shahabuddin said he had read a book, “The Passing of Parliament” on the decline of UK Parliament. It was time to have a similar book on India’s Parliament as well, he pointed out.
Syed Shahabuddin said India had a “20 percent democracy”, because people came to power by getting merely 20 percent of the vote polled. It did not truly reflect the people’s mandate as barely 50 to 60 percent of the voters turned up to vote and somebody who got even a quarter or less of it, he/she won.
One of the ways of dealing with present ills would be to adopt the presidential system of government. He was against the public funding of candidates for assembly or Parliament seats. “Public funding is a stupid idea”, he asserted. He wanted that the first-past-the-pole system of declaring winners should be done away with.
Veteran journalist Kuldeep Nayar said that Parliament failed the nation in 1984 and 2002 when it made no meaningful intervention in the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and parts of north India, and in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.
He advocated the right to recall under which voters have the right to nullify the election of their representatives in case of unsatisfactory performance. He was disturbed about the dismal performance of MPs.
The afternoon session was chaired by Justice AM Ahmadi, former Chief Justice of India. Prof. AS Narang said the current problems arose from the disconnect between the revolutionary ideals of the founders of the Constitution and the colonial mindset and functioning of the bureaucracy, judiciary and law-enforcement agencies.
Prof. Narang said that the humongous loss of public money caused by a stalled Parliament was not the sole issue of concern. The low representation of the disadvantaged communities was equally worrisome. For instance, Muslims are from 12 to 15 percent of the country’s population, but their representation in Parliament never crossed 5 per cent.
On the other hand, Brahmins constitute two percent of the population, but at one point they had 40 percent representation in Parliament. However, new social changes have brought it down to 14 percent.
He also pointed out to deeply ingrained negative attitudes in the police against the weak. Quoting Asghar Ali Engineer, he said the average policeman in Mumbai reads Saamna, the vitriolic anti-Muslim Shiv Sena newspaper.
Journalist and human rights activist John Dayal said that the state was inherently apathetic to Christians, who had inadequate representation in legislatures. “Our very survival is at stake”, he said.
Economist Abusaleh Shariff said the Muslim community had consistently been under-represented from legislatures to government jobs. Quoting figures he observed that West Bengal had a 30 percent population share of Muslims, but the Muslim presence in government jobs was 2 percent.
The justice system did not seem to address it, nor were questions on denial of justice, deprivation and exclusion of Muslims replied to properly in Parliament. He said an Equal Opportunity Commission could theoretically help in sorting out these problems, but even a body like that may not work in the present political environment.
Prof. BS Siddhu said the marginalised and suffering people had been ignored from the very beginning. The insincerity of the elite was evident even at the time of the Constituent Assembly. That was why two Sikh leaders – Sardar Hukum Singh and Sardar Bhupinder Singh – refused to sign the Constitution.
Supreme Court advocate Mushtaq Ahmad lauded the judiciary for delimiting the apparently limitless authority of Parliament to amend the Constitution by ruling that the basics of the Constitution could not be amended.
Advocate Feroz Ahmad Ghazi pointed out that like British Parliament India’s Sansad, too, “is a co-ordinator of debates”.
Justice Fakhruddin was happy that the Institute of Objective Studies had organised such a fruitful debate on the role of Parliament in Indian democracy.
In his presidential remarks, Justice Ahmadi observed that the Indian Constitution was described as a “seamless web” that alluded to its perfect balance and working harmony.
He regretted that despite the noble intent of the framers of Constitution, the diversity seen in the population was not reflected in the working of the state.
About the meagre representation of Muslims in Parliament he said the delimitation of electoral constituencies had thinly spread Muslim voters across different constituencies, diluting their voting strength. Another move–reserving Muslim constituencies for SC–STs-had further debilitated them. Yet another tactic – fielding of Muslim candidates by different parties in constituencies of sizeable Muslim presence – had done the rest of the job in eliminating Muslim representation.
He was not in favour of a presidential form of government as it had greater sustainability, but little accountability compared to the parliamentary system.
He did not approve of stalling Parliament as a way of protest. He quoted Article 39 that stresses equitable distribution of national resources, and contrasted it with the present reality of about 75 percent of Indians having next to no resources.
He was chagrined over the present system having virtually “forgotten” the noble constitutional principles of Justice, Equality and Fraternity. Fraternity, he said, was the first casualty. Regarding the Constitution’s goal of attaining dignity for every citizen, he said dignity fared no better than fraternity.
He explained that the Constitution did not envisage one religious denomination pushing another out towards the margins. However, when a marginalised faith community’s economic and educational backwardness was sought to be redressed vested interests shot it down with cries of “appeasement”.
He said education was the only way of empowering the disempowered, girls education more so.
Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam, Chairman of IOS, said in his remarks that the Institute would continue to debate and highlight the major issues of public concern in the months ahead.
He said the IOS Silver Jubilee celebrations, beginning from April 15, would continue for a year, during which such seminars and symposia would be organised all over India to articulate public concerns.
The programme started with a recitation from the holy Quran by Maulana Abdullah Tariq, and was conducted by Prof. Afzal Wani.
The following resolutions were adopted at the end of the smposium: