New Delhi: The winter session of the parliament began on what the ruling BJP government would consider a bitter note on Monday. In his first speech in the upper house, prime minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need for “effective” debates as “absolutely essential” for democracy. However, his silence on the absence of one of the senior-most members of parliament, Farooq Abdullah, became almost audible when a united opposition took on the treasury benches.
“Where is Farooq Abdullah?” became the opposition’s slogan, as several leaders made it a point to hammer down the fact that the MP from Srinagar and an important political voice has not been released from detention even to attend parliamentary proceedings in a session in which the union government intends to pass crucial bills.
Abdullah and his son Omar, both former J&K chief ministers, along with important leaders from the erstwhile state, were put under house arrest ever since the government withdrew the state’s constitutional autonomy and bifurcated it into two Union Territories on August 5 this year.
In detention for more than a 100 days now, the leaders’ absence has drawn attention to the fact that the government has been conspicuously silent on the gagging of all political voices in the state.
The winter session has this come as an opportunity for opposition to show cracks in the prime minister’s message. As a result, the communication lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir imposed by the government figured prominently in opposition talk.
The Rajya Sabha is about checks and balance. This is absolutely essential for our democracy. Debates have to be many and effective.
But, there is also a difference between:
Checking and clogging.
Balance and blocking: PM @narendramodi
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) November 18, 2019
And the absence of Abdullah in the Lok Sabha became the opposition’s crucial hinge when it came to pointing out all that has gone wrong in Jammu and Kashmir over the last few months, including the way politicians of the region were being forcibly kept out of the legislative process of India.
“Sir, Dr. Farooq Abdullah is not here,” said Trinamool Congress leader Saugata Roy in front of speaker Om Birla.
“Either instruct the government to release him or the home minister should make a statement in the house,” Roy added, even as Birla kept on telling him that the parliament is not a forum “for sloganeering, but for debates and discussions.”
Roy was aided by his Lok Sabha colleagues from Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Abdullah’s party, National Conference (NC), whose remaining two MPs barged into the well to protest their leader Abdullah’s forceful detention.
In due course of the day, the slogan “Vipaksh par hamla bandh karo, Farooq Abdullah ji ko riha karo (‘Stop attacking the opposition, free Farooq Abdullah’)” resonated across the opposition benches.
“Our leader Rahul Gandhi was not allowed to visit (Jammu and Kashmir), several MPs were sent back…whereas bhade ke tatu (hired agents) from Europe were being taken there. Isn’t it an insult to all MPs,” leader of the Congress legislative party Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury asked.
He went on to slam the government for allowing a European Union delegation largely comprising far-right MPs to make the trip to J&K but preventing Indian politicians from visiting the region.
“It has been 108 days today since Farooq Abdullah ji was detained. What kind of injustice is happening? He should be brought to the Parliament. It is his constitutional right,” he said, adding that preventing the veteran leader from attending the house is nothing short of an “atrocity”.
The Congress leader also demanded that the former Union home and finance minister P.Chidambaram, who is in CBI custody in connection to the INX media money laundering case, be allowed to attend parliament’s sessions.
Soon after, DMK leader T.R. Baalu rose to similarly say that Abdullah’s detention was “illegal” and demanded that the speaker intervene in the matter. As chaos ensued over the issue, TMC submitted an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha.
In an emotional appeal, National Conference MP Hasnain Masoodi said that Abdullah was under preventive custody, not judicial custody, and it could thus be revoked by the speaker’s order. “Farooq sahab represents Srinagar and it is right of the 20 lakh people of Srinagar that their voice be heard in the house…I have proof that he is not in judicial custody, he is in preventive custody. Your one order can revoke it,”
When the Revolutionary Socialist Party veteran N.K. Premachandran was given a chance to ask a supplementary question related to the finance ministry, he used it to highlight Abdullah’s absence again.
“Farooq Abdullah is not in the house. The house is not in order. I am not in a position to ask any question,” he said.
Speaker Birla responded rather hesitantly in the beginning. He said that when Union home minister Amit Shah had earlier informed that Abdullah was not under detention, he was technically correct. However, he added that a written information received by the Lok Sabha secretariat confirmed that he was “indeed under detention.”
The absence of Abdullah is likely to be a lingering topic of dissent throughout the winter session, and this may halt the Union government’s plan to hasten the passage of a few bills, including that of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill.
“As a MP, it is Farooq Abdullah’s privilege and right to attend the parliamentary proceedings. There is no criminal case against him. I think the government should facilitate his presence in the parliament so that a message goes to to world that we are not a banana republic,” Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Rajya Sabha MP, Manoj Kumar Jha, told The Wire.
Speaking to The Wire, senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid echoed Jha when he said, “Abdullah’s absence is very sad for our democracy. I can understand that there may be circumstances in which you keep people from coming to parliament but it should be in the rarest of circumstances.”
“Knowing Farooq Abdullah, I think he would never do something that would harm the country. The government is letting down a patriot like him who has lived a very difficult life.”
“This business of gagging is so obvious now. I don’t think they (the Union government) have any justification at all (to keep Abdullah from attending parliamentary sessions),” Khurshid said.