Expunging In The Digital Age

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Does expunging remarks made in Parliament work in the digital age? More so at a time when parliamentary proceedings are routinely telecast nationwide and the country knows who said what about whom. BY R.C.Rajamani

During the budget session of Parliament that ended last month, Dr. Subramanian Swamy created a furore in the Rajya Sabha when he remarked that the Congress members seemed better informed about the Constitution of the country which is the birth place of its president, than India’s. He then proceeded to name the country, Italy, but it was strangely expunged from the records following objections from Congress members who are often touchy about the subject of Sonia Gandhi’s origin.

I have used the name “Italy”, fully confident that it is not unparliamentary. Besides, the expunction order is relevant to the reporting of the incident in question.Bowing to the pressure tactics of the Congress members, the deputy chairman Prof. PJ Kurien expunged Swamy’s remarks. Yes, the chair has the right and authority to decide what is to be expunged. But what stunned observers, especially in the media, was Kurien’s insistence that the press should not publish the expunged remarks. His ‘advice’ or ‘warning’ or more appropriately his ‘order’ to the press was rather unprecedented.

AN UNPRECEDENTED ACT

I have been covering Parliament proceedings since 1978 and am unable to recall one instance when the chair specifically asked the media not to publish expunged remarks. It goes without saying that expunged remarks are not for publication. And any reporter on the Parliament beat knows this too well. Against this background, it is not (repeat not) difficult to conclude that Kurien had not taken a dispassionate decision. Did he betray some anxiety to ensure that the expunction order was unfailingly complied with?

Unfortunately, Kurien’s ruling could be seen in juxtaposition with his original party affiliation, his Congress background. Kurien, of course, is a Congress member of the Upper House. By tradition and practice, once in the chair, his party affiliation goes. He belongs to no party. Again, my intention is not to cast aspersions on Kurien’s sense of fair play. He is doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances and is plainly passionate about his duty. He is also able to take the rough with the smooth with his sense of humour.

During the budget session, when a member reminded the house that thanks are also due to the Chair for managing most difficult situations, Kurien said, “Thanks, but I always thought the Chair’s is a thankless job.”

Be that as it may, it will be appropriate to explain the background that led to the expunction of Swamy’s remarks. It all began when Samajwadi Party’s ChaudharyMunavverSaleem raised the issue of Aligarh Muslim University’s minority character and referred to Swamy being part of the 1970’s movement to protect the university’s minority status.

Swamy replied, “I have no objection to minority institutions in the country. However, Article 27 prohibits the state from financing a minority institution.”

Perhaps the time has come to have a fresh look at some of the Parliamentary practices and members’ privileges that have been rendered “anachronistic” by modern technology

Jeered by Congress members, Swamy shot back, with the remarks mentioned earlier. This upset Congress members and some of them rushed into the Well of the House. They even called Swamy a “CIA’ agent. Swamy retorted, shouting “ISI” (agents). It is not known if the really offensive expressions “CIA and ISI agents” were expunged. At least, these were reported by newspapers the following day.

As Kurien tried to calm the Congress members, assuring them that the reference to Italy had been expunged, Leader of Opposition GhulamNabi Azad said, “The problem is not us. The problem is this new gift of the BJP who will not allow us to function.” Azad also said that Swamy does not know the difference between street language and parliamentary language.

“He does not allow his hair to grey so he can learn and mature.” The clear allusion was to Swamy apparently dyeing his hair. Swamy could have taken objection to those remarks but the septuagenarian, nominated BJP member only smiled. Befittingly, Azad’s remarks were not expunged. Nor was expunction asked for.

The agitated mood of the Congress members was understandable as Swamy had a littler earlier raised the issue of the AugustaWestl and chopper deal with allegations of bribes being taken by the Congress leadership.

In the cut and thrust of parliamentary debates, such seemingly offensive remarks are taken in the right spirit. If such remarks are routinely expunged, the proceedings would become drab and dull. Seeing in this light, one is left wondering if Swamy’s remarks were really offensive and merited expunction. Of course, the Chair is the final authority.

My intention here is not to question the Chair’s decision. I have only tried to throw up a debating point in the best interest of promoting freedom of expression and strengthening the essential features of parliamentary democracy.

For the record, Swamy himself has challenged the expunction of his remarks. He has called the expunction “arbitrary, unreasonable and against the House rules.” The Chairman’s decision was still awaited at the time of writing this piece.

REPORTER’S BUGBEAR

Dealing with expunged remarks while writing a news copy is truly the bugbear of the reporter on the Parliament beat. Newspapers which have multiple time framed editions also face a challenge in this regard. Remarks which are expunged hours after they were made are often carried by early editions. Only conscientious editors would carry a clarification the following day about remarks expunged later.

Perhaps the time has come to have a fresh look at some of the Parliamentary practices and members’ privileges that have been rendered “anachronistic” by modern technology. For example, the live telecast of entire proceedings each day has raised questions about the very logic of expunction of remarks made by members considered “unparliamentary” or “offensive.” For, the viewers have heard them and seen the members making the remarks live on their TV sets.

But the following day’s newspapers cannot carry them as part of proceedings. It is being unfair on the print medium. Often, the crux of the news story hinges on expunged remarks made during important debates. Removing them and substituting them with the use of palliative alternative words and expressions makes the news stories fall flat. The reading public is also denied the opportunity to see their representatives for what they were really up to in Parliament. It is an issue that is best discussed by a special committee of parliament with media bodies like the Editors Guild of India and the Press Council of India.

Summary

  • Expunging unparliamentary remarks seems anachronistic in the digital age we live in
  • Parliamentary proceedings are telecast live nationwide and the people know what remarks which MP made about whom
  • Expunging remarks is unfair to the print medium and there is a need for MPs and the press to discuss these issues
  • HOUSE RULES ON EXPUNCTION

    The Speaker may order expunction of words which are defamatory or insinuatory in nature or levels allegation against a high dignitary or authority or organization

    Under Rule 380 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha, the Speaker is vested with the power to order expunction of words which, in his or her opinion, are defamatory or indecent or unparliamentary or undignified, from the proceedings of the House.

    Similarly, the Speaker may order expunction of words which are defamatory or insinuatory in nature or levels allegation against a high dignitary or authority or organization.

    Besides defamatory, indecent or unparliamentary words, certain words, phrases and expressions have, over the years, come to be held as unparliamentary in various Parliaments of the world. There are occasions when the Chair deprecates the use of such words and asks the member concerned to withdraw them. If such words are not withdrawn forthwith, the Chair may order their expunction.

    Similarly, words or expressions used by a member in violation of the rules while making allegations against any person may be considered defamatory and come within the scope of expunction. Needless to say, obscene or indecent words or expressions or those that tend to lower the dignity of the House, also attract expunction.

    On certain occasions, the Chair has also ordered, in its discretion, expunction of words considered to be prejudicial to national interest; prejudicial to the maintenance of friendly relations with a foreign state; derogatory to high dignitaries, including heads of friendly foreign states; likely to offend national sentiments or affect the religious susceptibilities of a section of the community; likely to discredit the Army; not in good taste or otherwise objectionable; and likely to bring the House into ridicule or lower the dignity of the Chair, the House or its members.

    There are instances when a member on being asked to withdraw certain remarks held to be not relevant to the debate, refused to do so, the Chair ordered the expunction of those remarks. On being asked not to quote from a document of which advance notice has not been given and which is not relevant to the debate, if the member continues to quote therefrom, the Chair may order expunction of the quotations.

    PAST DECISIONS FROM LOK SABHA CHAIR

    On Apr. 2, 1958, when the then minister of mines and oil ( K. D. Malaviya) had replied to starred question No. 1401 relating to the location of oil refineries in Assam, Hem Barua asked a supplementary using the word ‘adventurism’, in characterizing the action of the state government in this regard.

    Holding that the use of the expression ‘adventurism’ was in the nature of casting aspersions on the state government, the Speaker ordered its expunction from the proceedings of the House.

    On Sept. 16, 1964, a member (Nath Pai) while initiating the discussion on the Murud incident (regarding the unauthorised landing of two foreigners in a plane at Murud on June 8, 1964) observed:

    “But when this matter was raised and we discussed it in this House it was duly defeated by pressing into service that massive, blind majority, with its press button mentality, whose conscience can be smothered and whose patriotic urges can be suppressed by cracking the whip of party discipline.” Objection was raised by members that the patriotism of members going to the Congress Party was being questioned and as such words should be held unparliamentary and expunged from the debates. The Speaker, in this connection, observed:

    “…it is not proper to say that anybody’s conscience, much less of a large number, a party’s conscience can be suppressed so easily by pressing the button or by the whip. Every party has that right to discuss a matter in their own meeting and every party proceeds like that in a democracy. They agree to abide by the decisions they have taken there. Therefore, they come into the House and abide. by that whip issued to them. To put it in this manner is not fair to any party or to the democratic system also... I do not propose to expunge anything. My remarks and his observations would remain there.’

    When Shri Nath Pai repeated those very words again, the Speaker observed: “As he repeats it, it would be expunged.”

    The repeated words were accordingly expunged from the Debates while the original remarks were allowed.

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