December 31, 2023
India's Reichstag Fire Moment: Mass Suspension of Opposition Lawmakers Is a Step toward Decapitating the Essence of Democracy

John Brittas

NINETY years ago, a major fire engulfed the Reichstag building, the seat of the German parliament. Adolf Hitler, the four-week-old chancellor of Germany, used it as a ruse to clamp down on the opposition and forge ahead with his devious political project. 

In 2023 in India, the provocation was just a question that led to the mass suspension of opposition MPs in both the house of Indian parliament. 

The recently concluded winter session of parliament left several blots on our democracy and will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. As many as 146 MPs, 100 from the Lok Sabha and 46 from the Rajya Sabha, all from opposition parties, were suspended, setting a new low in our parliamentary history. This weird and drastic measure was in response to a simple demand from the opposition: a statement from union home minister Amit Shah on the security breach in the Lok Sabha where two intruders leaped down from the visitors’ gallery, used smoke canisters to create confusion and shouted slogans. The home minister had enough time to make a factual narration of an attack on the Hyderabad lawmaker and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi’s convoy in Uttar Pradesh. However, he had no time to say a few words about one of the boldest security breaches in recent decades.

There was a clear design behind this mass suspension. It was intended to sabotage democratic values enshrined in our constitution and the suspension of lawmakers in such large numbers – citing a trivial reason – amounts to smothering of the voices of the people of this country. What was put at stake in the process was the accountability of the executive to the legislature, the guiding principle of parliamentary democracy. But then we saw it coming thanks to the disdain this government led by Narendra Modi has for parliamentary accountability. He has the unenviable record of attending parliament for the fewest days.

Surprisingly, no action has been taken against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Prathap Simha who issued visitors’ passes to the intruders on December 13. This highlights a worrying trend where parliamentary sessions become a mere facade, with limited attendance from the prime minister and home minister, who seem detached from critical parliamentary discourse and instead engage with their media friends on such pressing governmental matters.


Article 75(3) of the Constitution provides that the council of ministers are collectively responsible to the house of the people. However, what transpired during the winter session proceedings diverged markedly from these constitutional precepts. The closest to what happened in the recent session occurred in 1989 when 63 Lok Sabha MPs were suspended. Even there, the MPs were initially suspended for the remainder of the week, and the suspension was revoked a day later. Rule 374 and Rule 256 of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha respectively stipulate that a member can be suspended from the service of the house for a period not exceeding the remainder of the session. As such, the extension of suspension of some MPs for three months (exceeding the period of the remainder of the session) contradicts the rules, as there are no explicit rules for suspending a member beyond the remainder of a session. The government has rather mastered the art of predetermining its actions first and then trimming the feet to fit the shoe by interpreting the rules accordingly. It seems as if the government cherry-picked some voices from the opposition to decide whether a particular MP is to be suspended for the remainder of the session or till the time the privileges committee gives its report. The Modi government is weaponising the privilege committee to throttle the voices of the opposition.

Despite the government enjoying a brute majority, the forum of parliament ensures means and ways to have at least a semblance of accountability of the executive. The rigid postures of the ruling dispensation were always aimed at maiming the parliament so that this facet of scrutiny fades away. For example, 264 questions raised by the suspended MPs were deleted from the list of queries thereby obliterating an important vertical of legislative scrutiny.

The brass-knuckle political tactics of the Modi government have had a profound impact on the legislative process as there has been a significant erosion of scrutiny and evaluation. Laws are to be made not only by looking at the current scenario but also the trajectory ahead of a nation with generations being kept in mind. However, the constitutional collapse in the form of a paralysed parliament paved the way for the fast-forwarding of bills, bypassing due deliberations.

The winter session also witnessed the passage of crucial pieces of legislation including the three tongue-twister bills seeking to overhaul our criminal justice system, besides the telecommunications bill, the chief election commissioner and other election commissioners bill, and the new post office bill. A common thread running through all of them was the fact that the majority of the opposition was not present in the house when these bills were taken up for consideration. Furthermore, none of the new bills introduced in this session were referred to any parliamentary committee for thorough scrutiny. These glaring omissions cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the legislative process.

The government is using suspension to incapacitate the established legislative practices. For instance, the telecommunications bill, which restructures the overall regulatory framework of the telecom sector, was passed by both houses within three days of introduction, with a shallow discussion involving only those MPs who stood in favour of the bill, happening only for one hour and four minutes in Lok Sabha and one hour and eleven minutes in Rajya Sabha. The bill gives the government the power to intercept, monitor, or block communications on certain grounds. No safeguards and procedures, whatsoever, have been detailed in the bill. Instead, the power to issue such safeguards has been delegated to the government without any oversight by courts or parliament. Concerns have been raised that this might lead to mass surveillance, thus infringing upon the fundamental right to privacy that was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Likewise, the new Election Commission Act directly challenges the independence of the Election Commission of India by giving the executive a substantial role in the appointment process of the chief election commissioner and other election commissioners. The whole purpose of this bill is to circumvent the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court’s five-member constitution bench judgment in the Anoop Baranwal case. It seems as if, just like ED and CBI, the government wants the Election Commission also to be a “caged parrot”. Another significant legislative development was the passage of the post office Bill, which replaced the Indian Post Office Act of 1898. The new bill, among other provisions, allows for the interception of postal articles, potentially raising concerns about the infringement of the freedom of speech and expression, as well as the right to privacy of individuals. The bill aims to grant more powers to the central government, although it does not explicitly address the intricacies of the functions of the Indian Post, as outlined in the previous Indian Post Office Act of 1898. Against that backdrop, the only notable achievement in the new legislation that the BJP can boast of is the deletion of the word “Indian” from the old act, in line with the BJP’s animosity toward the word “India”.

The three crime bills passed by cheerleaders without the presence of opposition is another example of zero parliamentary oversight. Wrapping the bills with Sanskrit names – Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita and Bharatiya Sakshya – itself is a violation of Article 348(1) of the Constitution which calls for using the English language for acts and bills. Apart from the rhetoric over decolonisation, the bills passed in effect curtail the liberty of the people. Though the Supreme Court had ruled twice against ‘sedition’, it has made a come-back with an increased term of punishment.  It’s curious to note that the scope of terrorism has been enhanced thereby further aggrandising the State. Undoubtedly, these criminal legislations will unleash mayhem as the government itself has acknowledged that it will take a year or so to implement the same.

The en masse suspension along with the vicious intent of turning the parliament into an echo chamber of servitude will have far-reaching consequences for our democracy. The aim of the government was also to divert the attention of the public from critical issues flagged by the intruders into the parliament – inflation, unemployment, democratic backsliding, etc. While condemning the unconventional tactics employed by the youth to make the "deaf hear" by breaching the security of democratic chambers, it is crucial to look beyond the sensational narrative. The issues they raised serve as a poignant reflection of the sentiments and concerns resonating within the hearts and minds of the broader public.

Instead, the government is busy strangling the “mother of all democracies” to death in the most heinous fashion.