Some members of the Rajya Sabha tore papers on the chairman's desk Monday while protesting the women's reservation bill. Tuesday the house took action against them by suspending them for the rest of the budget session.
Parliamentary procedures and etiquettes are carefully crafted to permit all members to contribute to debates in a constructive manner. This implies that objections may be raised to an issue with the permission of the chair. This also implies that members should listen to others who may have a different point of view.
The Committee on Ethics of the Rajya Sabha has drafted a Code of Conduct for MPs, which was adopted by the house in April 2005. The code requires members to "hold in high esteem the Constitution, the law, parliamentary institutions and above all the general public". It lays down 14 principles, the first of which states that "members must not do anything that brings disrepute to parliament and affect their credibility".
The Rajya Sabha also has a Committee of Privileges, which looks into issues that involve breach of privilege of the house. The chairman of the Rajya Sabha may refer any issue to the Committee of Ethics or the Committee of Privileges.
The rules of procedure also lay down certain norms to be followed by members. In particular, members "shall not obstruct proceedings, hiss or interrupt and avoid making running commentaries when speeches are being made in the council".
The rules also state that a member shall not "use his right of speech for the purpose of obstructing the business of the council".
The chairman has certain powers and duties to preserve order. Rule 259 states that "the chairman shall preserve order and shall have all powers necessary for the purpose of enforcing his decisions."
Rule 255 empowers the chairman to direct any member whose conduct is in his opinion grossly disorderly to withdraw immediately from the council, and such member may not attend the sitting for the remainder of that day.
Rule 256 states: "The chairman may, if he deems it necessary, name a member who disregards the authority of the chair or abuses the rules of the council by persistently and willfully obstructing the business thereof".
This is followed by a motion in the house to suspend that member for a period not exceeding the remaining period of the session. If that motion is passed, that member may not attend for the period of suspension.
This power was exercised Tuesday. The chairman named seven members, a motion was moved in the Rajya Sabha, and all of them were suspended from the house till the end of the current session, that is till May 7. The list of members includes four from the Samajwadi Party and one each from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal-United and the Lok Janashakti Party.
The Rajya Sabha's publication "Rajya Sabha at Work" lists several incidents in which members were suspended. Raj Narain was suspended several times - in 1966, 1967, 1971 and 1974. Each time, he refused to withdraw from the house and was removed by the Marshal on three occasions. Godey Murahari was suspended thrice - 1962, and twice in 1966.
The largest set of suspensions occurred in the Lok Sabha in 1989. Following commotion over the tabling of the Thakkar Commission report that looked into the assassination of Indira Gandhi, 63 MPs were suspended for a week. Four more MPs joined them in walking out of the house.
In an extreme case of misconduct, the house may expel a member. This is the only penalty that is higher than suspension for the remaining period of a session. Parliament exercised this power during the cash-for-questions issue to expel the errant MPs.
It is important for parliament to discuss issues of national importance. Parliament has rules that require MPs to behave in a dignified manner and processes to allow reasoned debate. The chairman, insisting Tuesday that these rules be followed, helped uphold the dignity of the house.
Leader of Opposition in the Rajya sabha Arun Jaitley insisted on a debate on the women's reservation bill though he supported the bill, saying that it was important to hear all differing views before voting on the issue.
This welcome though regretful development should be followed by all MPs upholding the Code of Conduct and Rules. The country hopes to see fewer disruptions and more business being conducted in an orderly manner in keeping with parliamentary dignity.