Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee/Image Source: spmf.org

By Arun Anand

Around a dozen Rajya Sabha MPs were suspended on the very first day of the winter session(2021) of the Indian Parliament. The members were suspended for their unruly conduct towards the end of the monsoon session in August. At that time the marshals were called after Opposition members stormed the Well of the House during the passage of the General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Bill, 2021.

The suspended members comprised six from the Congress, two each from Trinamool Congress and Shiv Sena, and one each from CPI and CPM.

The level of parliamentary debates and behaviour of elected representatives in legislatures and parliament have often been debated.

Thus, we are going to talk about a debate that can be used as a bench mark or reference point and in present times it would be pertinent to recall it as it could help reset the standards of parliamentary debates.

This debate took place way back in 1951 .On 12 May, 1951, the first amendment to the Constitution was introduced. It restricted some of the fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and right to hold property amongst others. It also aimed to create ninth schedule which many experts termed as Constitutional Vault. To put it broadly, laws put in the ninth schedule couldn’t be challenged judicially or one may say the right to scrutinize any law by the judiciary, that was granted by the Constitution was to be restricted.

Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee/Image Source: spmf.org

The debate that took place on this first amendment is one of the most aggressive and finest debates. It was a great verbal duel between Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru and the unofficial leader of opposition Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee:

Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru started this debate and he went hammer and tongs not against only the opposition but the press also. Those who consider Nehru to be the champion of liberalism should may have to rethink after they read what he said about the Press in his speech:

“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, day after day, 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.”

Nehru ended his speech with a brave attempt to justify the first amendment which was facing stiff opposition from not only his political rivals but from within his party rank and file as well as the cabinet also.

In his concluding remarks, Nehru said, “ You, I and the Country has to wait with social and economic conditions .. and we are responsible for them.” He thundered, “How are we to meet them? How are we to answer them? How are we to answer the question: for the last 10 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.”

Mookerjee deconstructed Nehru’s speech on the floor of the house and he was so powerful that not only the Congress MPs gave him a big round of applause but Congress MP NG Ranga described it as one of the most powerful and eloquent speeches he had ever heard. Ranga termed Mookerjee as ‘the Indian Burke’ after the great British parliamentarian and conservative philosopher Edmund Burke. Reporting on one of the greatest debates in Indian parliament’s history , the English daily The Times of India reported next day, “Mr Nehru’s sentiments was more than outmatched by the impassioned logic of Dr. Mookerjee. Interestingly, so convincing was Mookerjee that Ranga and another Congress MP Thakurdas Bhargava, who spoke after Mookerjee, asked their own Prime Minister to address some of the concerns especially those regarding civil liberties, raised by Mookerjee.

To give a glimpse of Mookerjee’s brilliant oratory and impassioned logic, here is a quote from his speech:

“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 ended his speech with stirring remarks that talked about ‘this encroachment on the liberty of the people of free India’, . He said:

“For the saddest epitaph which can be carved in the memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because it possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while yet there was time.”

This bill was refereed to Select committee and then as soon as the select committee gave the report and the bill was to be taken up finally for enacting it into a law, another fierce encounter took place between Nehru and Mookerjee. Another stalwart who spoke brilliantly from the opposition benches was Acharya Kriplani. His speech was also full of wit and sarcasm, “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 atleast 20 times during the course of the last three years.”

The famous Anglo-Indian Educationist Frank Anthony who reluctantly voted in favour of the bill put it brilliantly, “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 on this bill again before it was put to voting again. He again spoke brilliantly and warned Nehru in these words, “You can not pass or amend a constitution to fight with ghosts,” He likened Nehru to the Prince of Denmark fighting imaginary troubles in the Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In the final verbal duel, Nehru got so charged up that shaking his fists in fury he challenged his opponents to, ‘combat everywhere, intellectually or any other kind of combat on this issue and every other issue.’

Tripurdaman Singh(‘Sixteen Stormy Days’ pp. 184-185) gives a vivid account of the second verbal duel that kept everyone spellbound in the House:

‘Several days of bruising debates and devastating criticism had got to Nehru-recalling the debate he would say, ‘Listening to constant accusations and denunciations was too much for my patience. 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 hit back hard , ‘It is we who have brought about these major changes and not the petty critics of the government and it is we who are going to bring about major changes in the country.’

This fierce and acrimonious debate which lasted for almost 16 days and in which dozens of speakers put across their views finally came to an end at 6:40 p.m. on May 31, 1951 when the Speaker called for vote. There were 228 ayes, twenty noes and close to fifty members had abstained. The first amendment to the Constitution was passed preceded by one the finest ever debates in India’s parliamentary history.

(The information for the above article has been sourced from Parliamentary debates, Sixteen Stormy Days(Penguin) by Tripurdaman Singh and Nehru: The Debates that Defined India (Harper Collins) by Adeel Hussain and Tripurdaman Singh)