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War, terror failed to stop Parliament but coronavirus poses new challenge

The new circumstances forced on everyone by the pandemic have prompted large-scale consultations by Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla with officials to find a feasible way to conduct the session within the framework of health guidelines — social distancing being the most important of them


Hindustan Times, New Delhi

In December 1971, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced the unconditional surrender of Pakistan in the Lok Sabha, which had continued to sit even as the country was at war.

Indeed, records show that Parliament sessions have continued through adversities — war, the Emergency, even soon after a terror attack — but now, it has to find a way to deal with the coronavirus disease.

The new circumstances forced on everyone by the pandemic have prompted large-scale consultations by Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla with officials to find a feasible way to conduct the session within the framework of health guidelines — social distancing being the most important of them.

At last 10 meetings have happened this year to find solutions, and many more are in the pipeline.

Work must go on, according to Afzal Amanullah, former parliamentary affairs secretary.

“This is a special situation. You need not conduct the session within Parliament complex alone and anyway, holding the session would show our capability of doing so during a pandemic,” he added

With 770 MPs in both Houses, India has the world’s fourth-largest parliament by number of lawmakers after the UK, Italy and France.

During the India-China war of 1962, Parliament’s winter session skipped Question Hour, but nothing else. “The Session was to commence on 19 November 11, 1962 but due to Chinese aggression, it was advanced,” a parliamentary report said. The war started on October 20 and lasted till November 21.

From 26 October, Parliament also made a special provision: it started from 12 noon instead of 11 am. While the original schedule was for 34 days, the session lasted for 26 days.

According to PRS legislative research, Parliamentarian Hari Vishnu Kamath suggested that “the Parliament of the nation must continue to be in session and have the privilege of advising and guiding the government in this emergency.”

During the 1971 war too, the daily schedule was changed. “From 6 to 23 December (due to Pakistani aggression), hours of sittings of Lok Sabha were changed to 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Question Hour and Calling Attention matters were suspended,” documents state.

Similarly, in 1965, the monsoon session ran from August 16 till September 24, although it was cut short in the wake of the war.

During the Emergency, imposed by the Indira Gandhi regime, Parliament continued to function. Between June 1975 and March 1997—the tenure of the Emergency—five parliament session were conducted. The monsoon session of 1975—the first after declaration of the Emergency—didn’t have Question Hour or time for Opposition MPs to ask questions to different ministers. The winter session of 1976 too, didn’t have a Question Hour.

Several constitutional amendments were cleared hurriedly during this period. One of the most controversial among these was the 42nd Amendment Act that added the words ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ to the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.

“Our Parliament has worked through war, famine and economic colpase. Its work did not stop even after a terrorist attack. Democratic institutions should be impervious to unfavouable circumstances. Our Parliament needs to adapt to the challenge posed by the pandemic and innovate to fulfill its mandate to the people,” said Chaksu Ray of PRS legislative research.

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This content was originally published here.