India hoped for a statesmanlike address from Prime Minister Modi on the Manipur crisis, but instead got a raucous political rally.
Slapstick humour and canned laughter might well be fodder for social media platforms, but one does not expect Parliament to stoop to that level of discourse and wit. Yet, that is what we saw on August 10, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded to the no-confidence motion brought against his government.
When the monsoon session opened, the opposition not only demanded that Manipur be taken up in Parliament but insisted, rightly, that the issue be addressed by the Prime Minister. These demands were ignored by Mr Modi. The opposition finally took the extreme step of calling a no-confidence motion—knowing full well its outcome—simply to get the Prime Minister to speak.
Given the magnitude of the issue that is still raging in this small north-eastern State, it behoved the Prime Minister to address the Lok Sabha in all seriousness and inform it of the government’s assessment of the situation and the solutions it intended to offer to a people rent by bloodshed. Instead, the Prime Minister taunted, jested, and recited doggerel. The Treasury benches obediently tittered.
Mocking the opposition for its squabbles and failures is entirely the Prime Minister’s prerogative. But not on this occasion. Not as Manipur simmered, Nuh burnt in a communal fire, and four people had been shot dead in cold blood by a Railway Protection Force officer who chanted the Prime Minister’s name. It was an occasion when the country needed to hear a voice that would reach out and reassure people, a voice that would speak to all of India and not just its adoring electorate. It needed to hear a statesman’s voice. What it got was a politician’s rambunctious rally and canned laughter.
Finally, 100 minutes into his speech, Mr Modi brought up Manipur for a brief 10 minutes. Earlier, he had maintained silence for 77 days until the release of a horrific video prompted him to bring up the topic for two minutes before the monsoon session began.
It might be fanciful to expect rapprochement from a government with such an extraordinary record of divisiveness but it was still deeply disappointing to hear the Home Minister, Mr Amit Shah, blaming the crisis simply on an alleged influx of Kuki refugees. This has only resulted in widening the rift and deepening the sense of hurt in Manipur. Mr Shah also declared that the widely distrusted Mr Biren Singh would continue as Chief Minister when it is clear that his removal will have to be the first step for any peace process to succeed.
The opposition’s demand to discuss Manipur under Rule 267 (Rajya Sabha) or Rules 56-63 (Lok Sabha), which is commensurate with the gravity of the issue, was disallowed. MPs from Manipur, even the ruling party’s own, were dissuaded from speaking. A Mizoram MP’s microphone was switched off. Sections of the speeches of opposition leaders were expunged and disciplinary action initiated against some of them. In contrast, ruling party members appeared to be granted every latitude in speech and conduct.
As a muzzled opposition staged walkouts, both Houses serenely passed Bill after Bill unopposed and with no discussion or reference to committees. Bills that deeply impact the lives and livelihoods of the country’s billion-plus citizens.
A legislative session such as this, a descent into mere burlesque, should deeply disturb all those who believe in a functioning democracy and not just an electoral one. All the bluster and noise it produced hide the very real silence that is being maintained about issues of deep national import. A silence that the media must not perpetuate.
In this issue, therefore, we talk about Manipur—again.