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Opposition exorcises Smriti Irani's sedition demons in Rajya Sabha

Charu Kartikeya | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:47 IST

Once again, the NDA government got a taste of the Opposition's might in the Rajya Sabha. This was on the second day of the debate related to Rohith Vemula's suicide and Kanhaiya's arrest. Union HRD minister Smriti Irani was given a lesson in etiquette, as well as a clear message that the Opposition in the upper house was not the same as in the Lok Sabha. The house was in an uproar during her reply to the debate, and eventually had to be adjourned for the day.

Read: Did Smriti Irani mislead the Parliament?

The debate went on for over four hours and was marked by the government's strategy of fielding Leader of the House Arun Jaitley before Irani's reply. Jaitley made an unscheduled intervention during the debate and, in a departure from convention, went on to speak at length. However, that was only after Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad's smooth but firm articulation, of a grave charge that the government was leading the nation to a war with itself.

Azad: be wary of enraging the youth

Azad enumerated at least half a dozen incidents where the union HRD Ministry under Irani, had run into conflicts at institutes and universities across the country. But he steered clear of levelling direct charges against her, instead blaming the RSS student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Hyderabad University administration and union minister Bandaru Dattatreya for Rohith's suicide, and the government in general for Kanhaiya's arrest.

azad RS embed

Azad also expounded Congress' revised strategy of condemning the slogans allegedly raised at JNU, in a bid to appear nationalist and denounce the nationalism debate at the same time. From his perspective, the government's real mistake was that it had nabbed an innocent person, while letting the actual culprits, the sloganeers, get away.

He concluded by warning the government of serious repercussions of attracting the ire of the young. He cited examples from global history, of the 1968 students uprising in France and student movements in the US two years later, against the invasion of Vietnam and Cambodia. Quoting the press secretary of the then US president Richard Nixon, who had said the nation was at war with itself, Azad said that India was in the same position today.

Yechury: forewarned is forearmed

CPI(M)'s Sitaram Yechury turned on its head the analogy made by BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi a day earlier, that Left parties were witches in the growth story.

Also read: When it comes to being vague, Rajnath proves he's BS Bassi's boss

"Yes, we are witches...and we forewarn what is going to happen. Like in Macbeth, the witches forewarn...we are calling upon the people to be forearmed against this attack that is happening in the name of nationalism that is basically a certain brand of religiosity."

yechury RS embed

Yechury accused the government, and especially the BJP, of using one incident to malign an entire university. He said the leaders of the ruling party were saying the same thing today as the editorials of RSS mouthpiece Organiser 40 years ago, that JNU was "a den of anti-national activity" and that it must be closed down.

He also appealed to the chair to constitute a House Committee "to go into what is happening in all the Central Universities and institutions that we have established through an Act of Parliament."

Tyagi to Irani: control your anger

JD(U)'s K C Tyagi turned the focus to the atrocities against Dalits and the need to empower the SC/ST Commission to take stricter action. Why are Bandaru Dattatreya and three others "roaming free" even after the imposition of charges under this act in Rohith Vemula's case, Tyagi wondered out loud.

tyagi RS embed

When Irani rose to make a few clarifications, she and Tyagi got into an altercation in which Tyagi asked her to restrain herself. Reminding Irani that hers was a position, earlier held by eminent leaders like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Tyagi asked her to control her anger and be more polite. Specifically, he advised her to not point fingers at other members like she did with BSP chief Mayawati, a day earlier.

Jaitley divides Opposition

Even though this discussion did not pertain to his ministry, Jaitley intervened in his capacity as Leader of the House. The lengthy duration of his speech was surprising since such interventions are usually short. Essentially, his argument was that clash of ideas at universities was welcome, but celebrating the 'martyrdom' of terrorists must not be supported.

Read more- Smriti Irani: the Hindutva message beneath the maternal fury

Jaitley also attempted to drive a wedge in between the Opposition, by recalling Ambedkar's contempt for the Left, and also reminding Congress that it had a "history of never supporting the fringe". He told the Opposition leaders that they were "adding respect to a movement that was a charter to break the country into pieces".

jaitley RS embed

Slamming Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi for visiting the JNU campus after the controversy broke out, Jaitley also took a dig at Congress, saying the party took this step without giving it prior thought. Singling out the Left, he also mentioned that this was the result of the Congress and Left trying to join hands for the West Bengal polls.

"The tragedy of Bengal", Jaitley added, "is that the state had three Congress parties now - the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Marxist Congress." This forced Derek O' Brien and Yechury to stand up and register their protest at being equated with Congress.

Irani recalls the 'demon' of sedition

Unlike in the Lok Sabha, Irani began the discussion on a mellow note, defending her actions in all the campus controversies cited by the Opposition. After informing the House that police had entered JNU campus and lathi- charged students in 2009 as well, Irani began repeating the assertions she had made earlier in Lok Sabha.

Soon, she came back to the two-year-old poster of Mahishasur Martyrdom Day observed by the All India Backward Students Forum and started reading from it. A day earlier, the Opposition was silent in Lok Sabha following Congress' walk-out, as Irani read out from the poster that claimed goddess Durga was a 'sex-worker' who had enticed Mahishasura and killed him.

irani RS embed

But this time in the upper house, senior Congress Leader Anand Sharma and CPI(M)'s Tapan Sen did not allow for a repeat performance, and took exception to the reference vociferously. Sharma asserted that this was setting a "potentially harmful" precedent that will allow anyone in the House to read anything inflammatory about another faith.

As Irani refused to relent, members trooped into the Well and the ensuing commotion led to the adjournment of the House. The debate was left incomplete and the minister did not get another chance to wax eloquent about the affront to "Durga Maa" and how Rahul Gandhi had supported it for political expediency.

How an alleged insult to the goddess amounted to sedition, Irani hadn't cared to explain even in the Lok Sabha.

Edited by Anna Verghese

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First published: 26 February 2016, 11:45 IST
Charu Kartikeya @CharuKeya

Assistant Editor at Catch, Charu enjoys covering politics and uncovering politicians. Of nine years in journalism, he spent six happily covering Parliament and parliamentarians at Lok Sabha TV and the other three as news anchor at Doordarshan News. A Royal Enfield enthusiast, he dreams of having enough time to roar away towards Ladakh, but for the moment the only miles he's covering are the 20-km stretch between home and work.