New Delhi: A dozen Rajya Sabha MPs were suspended from the winter session of Parliament on its very first day. The reason was their unruly behaviour towards the end of the monsoon session in August. At that time, these 12 opposition members had stormed the well of the House during the passage of the General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Bill, 2021, and marshals had to be called in. The suspended parliamentarians comprise six members of the Congress, two each from the Trinamool Congress and Shiv Sena, and one each from the CPI and CPM.
The level of parliamentary debates and the behaviour of MPs have often become the subject of discussion. Today, it would be instructive to go back to a debate in 1951. Perhaps it can be used as a benchmark or at least a reference point to help reset the standards of parliamentary debate.
On 12 May 1951, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru introduced the First Amendment to the Constitution of India to Parliament. This amendment restricted some fundamental rights, including freedom of speech and the right to hold property. It also aimed to create the Ninth Schedule, which many experts termed as a ‘constitutional vault’ because it contained a list of laws that couldn’t be challenged in the courts or be subjected to scrutiny by the judiciary.
The debate that took place over the Constitution (First Amendment) Bill was one of the fiercest, but also one of the finest debates in Parliament. Facing each other in this great verbal duel were Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the unofficial leader of opposition Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
An outrageous bill
Pandit Nehru started the debate on the motion, going hammer and tongs not only against the opposition but also the press. Those who consider Nehru to be the champion of liberalism might have a rethink once they learn what he said about the press in his speech.
Nehru said: “It has become a matter of great distress to me to see from day to day some of these newssheets which are full of vulgarity and indecency and falsehood… not injuring me or this House but poisoning the mind of the younger generation, degrading their mental integrity and moral standards. It is not for me a political problem, it is a moral problem.”
He ended his speech with a brave attempt to justify the First Amendment which was facing stiff opposition from not only his political rivals but also from within the cabinet and the Congress rank and file.
In his concluding remarks, Nehru thundered: “You, I and the country [have] to wait with social and economic conditions… and we are responsible for them… How are we to meet them? How are we to answer them? How are we to answer the question: for the last ten or twenty years you have said we will do it. Why have you not done it? It is not good for us to say: We are helpless before fate and the situation we have to face at present.”
Nehru, however, did not get to have the last word so easily.
‘You are treating the Constitution as a scrap of paper’
Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee took to the floor of the House and deconstructed Nehru’s speech so convincingly that even Congress MPs gave him a big round of applause. Indeed, the next speaker, the Congress parliamentarian N.G. Ranga described it as one of the most “powerful and eloquent” speeches he had ever encountered. Mookerjee was nothing short of being an Indian Edmund Burke (a great Irish statesman and philosopher), Ranga declared. Another Congress MP, Thakurdas Bhargava, also asked the PM to address the concerns Mookerjee had raised about civil liberties.
The press agreed with Bhargava and Ranga. The Times of India reported the next day that Nehru’s sentiments were “more than outmatched by the impassioned logic of Dr. Mookerjee”. The brilliant oratory and reasoning of Mookerjee can be glimpsed in a snippet from his speech.
He chided Nehru: “You can pass a law and say that the entire task of framing, interpreting and working the Constitution will be left in the hands of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, assisted by such people, whom he may desire to consult… You are treating this Constitution as a scrap of paper.”
Mookerjee condemned “this encroachment on the liberty of the people of free India” in his stirring concluding remarks, further noting: “For the saddest epitaph which can be carved in the memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while yet there was time.”
A war of words
Eventually, the bill was referred to a Congress-dominated Select Committee. After that, its new draft was moved in Parliament for its enactment into a law, leading to another fierce encounter between Nehru and Mookerjee on 31 May 1951.
It’s worth noting here that Mookerjee’s views resonated with other leaders too. Another stalwart who spoke brilliantly from the opposition benches was Acharya Kripalani. His speech was also full of wit and sarcasm.
Kripalani said: “We are accused of idol worshippers. By who are we accused? I am sure the greatest beneficiary of this idol worship is our Prime Minister and also, may I add, this government. But for this idol worship, this government would have fallen at least twenty times during the course of the last three years.”
The famous Anglo-Indian educationist Frank Anthony, who reluctantly voted in favour of the bill, made clear his aversion but tried to justify his vote.
Anthony said: “The only way to stop the inevitable, ultimate dictatorship, Communist dictatorship is dictatorship of Jawaharlal Nehru. But because I believe that a dictatorship today is the only way to prevent a later dictatorship, I am prepared to give blanket powers to Jawaharlal Nehru. That is the only reason for supporting these amendments completely.”
Mookerjee spoke before the bill was put to voting again. He again elucidated his ideas brilliantly. Comparing Nehru to the Prince of Denmark fighting imaginary troubles in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he warned the PM: “You cannot pass or amend a Constitution to fight with ghosts.”
In the final confrontation, Nehru was so riled up that he shook his fists and challenged his opponents to combat!
Tripurdaman Singh in his book Sixteen Stormy Days (pp184—5) gives a vivid account of this second verbal duel that kept everyone spellbound in the House. Excerpted from Sixteen Stormy Days (where, incidentally, both spellings, ‘Mookerji’ and ‘Mookerjee’, appear):
“I say this opposition is not a true opposition, not a faithful opposition, not a loyal opposition. I say it deliberately,” an infuriated Prime Minister responded.
“Yours is not a true Bill,” came Mookerji’s sharp retort, further stoking Nehru’s temper…
Nehru, shaking his fists in fury, charged Mookerji with making false statements and scandalous speeches.
“Because your intolerance is scandalous,” came Mookerji’s riposte.
“It has become the fashion in this country for some people to go about in the name of nationalism and in the name of liberty to preach the narrowest doctrines of communalism,” growled Nehru.
‘You are an arch communalist, responsible for the partition of this country,” replied Mookerji.
“We here have had to put with much from a few members of this house who have challenged…,” seethed Nehru. Even before he could finish Mookerji cut in, ‘This is dictatorship, not democracy.”
When an anxious and exasperated Govind Malviya — son of the Congress stalwart and educationist Madan Mohan Malviya — complained about the constant interruptions of the Prime Minister’s speech, Nehru sneered, “I have invited them… I only wanted to see how much restraint Dr Mookerjee has.”
“What restraint you have shown?” Mookerji snapped back, “What restraint you have shown?”
In the heat of the moment, Prime Minister Nehru challenged his opponents to combat… “It is we who have brought about these major changes,” he thundered: [A]nd not these petty critics of the Government and it is we who are going to bring about major changes in this country…”
This fierce and acrimonious debate that lasted for almost 16 days and in which dozens of speakers put across their views finally came to an end at 6:40pm on 31 May 1951 when the Speaker called for the vote. There were 228 ayes, 20 nays and close to 50 members abstained. The First Amendment to the Constitution was passed, but what also needs to be remembered today is what preceded it: one of the finest ever debates in India’s parliamentary history.
Author’s note: The source materials for the above article are the proceedings of parliamentary debates, Sixteen Stormy Days (Penguin: February 2020) by Tripurdaman Singh, and Nehru: The Debates that Defined India (Harper Collins: November 2021) by Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain.
The writer is a research director at RSS-linked think-tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra. He has authored two books on the RSS. Views expressed are personal.