Friday, February 14, 2014

Telangana bill: Pepper spray in Parliament leaves Indian democracy in tears

 The difference between the street and Parliament blurred on Thursday as pepper spray, shards of broken glass, uprooted microphones and brawls turned Lok Sabha into a battlefield between supporters and rivals of the state of Telangana.

The vandalism saw four MPs being taken to hospital - three were later discharged - and resulted in the suspension of 16 MPs who will not be allowed to enter Lok Sabha when it meets on Monday. There were reports of "watch and ward" staff of Lok Sabha foiling what could have potentially been an incendiary protest by recovering and seizing a can of inflammable liquid from an unidentified MP.

Congress, which is determined to create the separate state of Telangana in order to bag a majority of 17 seats from the region, did succeed in getting the Andhra Pradesh Reorganization Bill "introduced", but only after Parliament, although used to ever-declining standards of conduct, had plumbed new depths.

The ugly events, mimicking some of the most shameful episodes in state assemblies, saw the SPG stepping up security of Prime MinisterManmohan Singh and Congres chief Sonia Gandhi inside Lok Sabha premises, and left the veterans shocked.

But while unprecedented they may have been, the high-octane protests were hardly unexpected because of the determination of the Telangana opponents to spare nothing to derail the bill. The PM and Sonia had been asked to stay away in order to deny spectacular targets to Telangana protesters, while Congress had selected a group of its MPs to act as the protective cordon around the Speaker and the bench of ministers.

The fear of untoward incidents, with tempers running high in the anti-Telangana camp, came true as soon as the House met at noon after an adjourned question hour. No sooner had the AP Reorganization Bill been introduced that the scene inside the House looked reminiscent of military formations squaring off against one another.

A solid phalanx of Congress MPs stood between the anti-Telangana camp and Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and grappling broke out almost immediately as home minister Sushil Shinde rose to seek leave to introduce the bill. Except for a couple of Telangana MPs who made up for the lack of strength by using force, it was essentially a Congress versus Congress affair with party MPs opposed to the creation of Telangana going after supporters of AP's partition.

Congress MP from the anti-Telangana bloc L Rajagopal, who was to be later expelled, whipped out a can of pepper spray near the opposition benches while being restrained by MPs deputed by Congress managers. A five second blast was enough as the pungent fumes spread rapidly and MPs sped from the chamber coughing and rubbing watering eyes.

Rajagopal took more than a few blows before he was led out by marshals, but he had sealed his notoriety by then.

The dramatic scenes unfolded with hefty TDP MP Venugopal Reddy trying to break through the Congress cordon around the Speaker's table and ended up snatching papers while the glass on the table seating the secretary general broke under a massive blow.

Soon, the microphone was yanked from the secretary general's table while another TDP MP - a pro-Telangana one — Ramesh Rathod was also seen in the thick of the action.

The fisticuffs that followed could have been a road rage incident routinely witnessed on Delhi roads. Punches flew thick and fast with Venugopal at the centre of the storm. Word spread that Venugopal had brandished a knife though the MP later refuted the claim.

Rajagopal, armed with the pepper spray, was for a couple of minutes more than a match for his opponents before the harassed MPs pounced on him to grab the weapon. TRS, Congress and TDP members all were part of the chaotic scenes.

In the bedlam, Shinde tabled the bill and a coughing Speaker Meira Kumar adjourned the proceedings. Kumar later suspended 16 MPs from the House which includes two from Telangana. She called the incident a blot on democracy which had shamed India and Parliament.

Three Congress MPs — Vinay Pandey, Ponnam Prabhakar and Balram Naik — the last two from Telangana, were taken to hospital for treatment for over-exposure to the pepper spray.

In the heat of the moment, there was also talk of lodging FIR against the errant members but officials said there was no complaint till late evening to help proceed.

The legislation to divide AP is part of Congress strategy to salvage its political fortunes in the 42-seat state where its star has been on the wane since the death of its mascot chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. Although Congress succeeded in getting the bill introduced under controversial circumstances, the ugly scenes brutally exposed, once again, how the leadership's writ has shrunk since 2009 when it won more than 200 seats in LS elections. Ministers from the Seemandhra region could be seen in the well when blows were exchanged between the rival factions of the party.

The Telangana contingent, which desperately wants the bill to be passed, celebrated the minor victory. While the government now plans to take up the statehood legislation after the budget in the last three days of the last session of Parliament, doubts remain if it would be able to clinch it.

The government was anticipating trouble from the anti-T bloc and Parliament security had taken precautions to prevent any untoward incident like immolation outside the House and visitors were not allowed in the galleries as additional measure to keep the trouble away during the proceedings.

--  The Times of India

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