“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Tribute to Speaker Rabi Ray (1926-2017)

Two years back on March 6 2017, Rabi Ray who was a freedom fighter, a socialist, a long standing legislator, union minister, Speaker of the ninth Lok Sabha and above all an outstanding leader in our public life, breathed his last, leaving behind a tall legacy of service, honesty, integrity and intellectual quest.

A follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia, Ray remained wedded to the ideals enshrined in the Constitution and fiercely defended parliamentary democracy anchored on secularism and civilisational values of embracing the other.

In the annals of our parliamentary democracy the rich legacy associated with the office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha commence with Vithalbhai Patel, elder brother of the legendary Sardar Patel, who in 1925 assumed the office of President of the Central Legislative Assembly (equivalent to the Speaker today) and established an exemplary tradition of neutrality and impartiality of the presiding officer.

Vithalbhai functioned with so much authority, marked by his fierce sense of independence, that every action of his was hailed and valued for its fairness and objectivity. Even the British Government hailed his rulings and had no courage to question them.

Rabi Ray's tenure as Speaker of the Lok Sabha, which lasted over two years from his assuming office in December 1989, can be said to have the attributes of Patel's tenure as the President of the Central Legislative Assembly.

Personal integrity

Ray's personality too was marked by exacting standards of honesty, integrity and simplicity, and his role in insulating the office of the Speaker from the influences of the Government, and his method of taking independent decisions based on the letter and spirit of law and jurisprudence, shared close similarities with Vittalbhai's tenure.

When after his unanimous election as Speaker Rabi Ray went to the office car to go home from Parliament, he found a Mercedes waiting for him near the gate. He immediately declined to use it and asked for a simple Ambassador car. When he was told that the Mercedes the official car of the Speaker he immediately instructed that it be replaced with an Ambassador. Everyone was stunned by the decision, which brought out his simplicity and plain living even while occupying that august office.

Parliamentary Standing Committees

Many of the pathbreaking decisions Ray took as Speaker enjoy enduring and contemporary significance. His most momentous decision was to set up the subject committees of Parliament, which are now known as department-related Parliamentary Standing Committees, the reports of which are now widely quoted by legislators, the media, academia and numerous government departments.

If any worthwhile work is done by Parliament in any realm now, it is by these Parliamentary Standing Committees, which bring out the bipartisan functioning of the apex representative institution of our democracy, and are able to closely and effectively scrutinise the functioning of the executive.

In setting up such committees, on the pattern of the Subject Committees of the British Parliament, Ray heralded a new era for the Indian Parliament, by making the executive more accountable to it.

It is tragic that the present dispensation is not using such committees to scrutinise legislation, and is rather willfully not referring bills to such committees for examination and assessment. This is a deliberate negation of the principle of accountability.

Impeachment motion against V.Ramaswami

Speaker Ray created history when for the first time in the history of the Indian Republic he admitted an impeachment motion against a sitting judge of the higher judiciary who had indulged in corruption and unethical activities.

That motion was admitted on the last day of the ninth Lok Sabha, and some people challenged it in the Supreme Court by arguing that it had lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. But the Supreme Court upheld the motion of impeachment admitted by the Speaker, who stood vindicated for taking a lawful decision.

The decision to admit the impeachment motion flowed from Ray's vision to fight against corruption in all spheres of public life. Eventually it fell when it was put to vote in the tenth Lok Sabha and the Congress party abstained from voting.

The precedent created by Speaker Ray was cited in the context of the decision of the present Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, Venkaiah Naidu, who did not admit the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Dipak Misra even though the requisite number of members had signed the motion.

Janata Dal Split and the Party Whip

A Presiding Officer is the repository of the dignity and authority of the House. Rabi Ray as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha amply demonstrated his power and authority to remain impartial and give appropriate rulings which commanded respect from the leaders of all political parties.

One may recall his historic ruling in January 1991, when some MPs from the Janata Dal caused a split in the original party and some others defied the party whip while voting in the House, attracting provisions of the Anti-Defection Law.

In the annals of parliamentary democracy Ray's ruling here is cited for his neutrality and objectivity in understanding a complex situation arising out of a split and defiance of the whip. He declared 25 Members of the Janata Dal, who claimed to have split from the party, as unattached. Later when 30 other MPs of the same party joined them claiming they had also split from the party, Speaker Ray issued a showcause notice to them asking them to explain why they should not be subjected to disqualification under the Anti-Defection Law.

He also issued showcause notices to seven other Members who had violated the whip while voting in the Lok Sabha in favour of the Chandra Shekhar government.

Some affected Members filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court praying for a stay on the Speaker's action. When the Delhi High Court issued notice to Speaker Ray, he refused to submit himself to the court's jurisdiction and declined to accept the notice, on the grounds that he as the Speaker represented the supremacy of Parliament in those matters, and that no other authority could examine the Speaker's decision.

Threatened with Arrest

However, the Delhi High Court passed an order without staying the action of the Speaker and expressed the hope that the Speaker would not take any adverse action pending disposal of the writ petition.

Then Law Minister Subramaniam Swamy met Rabi Ray in the Speaker's Chamber and asked him to withhold his ruling. He threatened to arrest the Speaker if he went ahead and disqualified the MPs.

President R.Venkatraman in his memoirs My Presidential Years wrote that many Members of the Lok Sabha demanded the resignation of Subramaniam Swamy on the floor of the House for having threatened the Speaker of the Lok Sabha with arrest. Ray showed rare magnanimity in urging the House not to blow up the incident - he requested everybody to forget it.

However, the Members did not relent and when Minister Swamy wanted to speak and clarify he was shouted down. He later informed President Venkatraman that he had only told the Speaker that disqualifying the Members while the matter was pending in the High Court would amount to contempt of court, and the Speaker would be liable to be arrested.

In reponse President Venkatraman noted that the pendency of a matter before the court did not mean that the court had given a stay on it, and that Law Minister Swamy's understanding that the Speaker could be guilty of contempt of court was untenable.

President Venkatraman critically reflected on Law Minister Subramaniam Swamy in his memoir, writing, "It is a pity that a country which produced legal luminaries like Motilal Nehru, C.R.Das, Ambedkar, Katju and Alladin should have a Law Minister without qualifications in law."

Courts Have No Jurisdiction over the Speaker

Later, when the Delhi High Court formally stayed the action of the Speaker to proceed against 25 Members on the basis of the Anti-Defection Law, the entire Lok Sabha protested against the court's order against the Speaker, who informed the House that he was not submitting himself to the jurisdiction of the High Court, and would proceed to examine the petitions for disqualification.

Congress President Rajiv Gandhi took the stand that he and his party would stand by the Speaker's decision in matters relating to defection, and on the supremacy of Parliament. When the entire House stood in favour of the Speaker the Delhi High Court withdrew its stay order and categorically accepted the final authority of the Speaker in such matters.

In due course Speaker Ray ruled to recognise the breakaway Members as a separate formation, and disqualified those who had violated the party whip to vote in favour of the Chandra Shekhar Government. The ruling was hailed by all concerned, and President Venkatraman described it as a balanced ruling.

Importance of an Impartial Speaker

The above narrative clearly brings out the courage of conviction in Rabi Ray as Speaker of the Lok Sabha, not to submit himself to the jurisdiction of any other authority on matters concerning Parliament. It was a rare example of a Presiding Officer who zealously safeguarded the authority of Parliament.

Ray's balanced and legally tenable stand commanded respect even from the judiciary. When his successor as Speaker gave a ruling concerning another party split there emerged a controversy and all concerned referred to Rabi Ray's ruling as an example of the importance of the impartial office of the Speaker.

At a time when the present Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan, made a blatant political statement - on the issue of the induction of Priyanka Gandhi into the Congress - and when so many decisions of the Speaker on the issue of money bills are being challenged in courts of law, it is worthwhile to gratefully recall the legacy of the late Shri Rabi Ray, and salvage our Parliament and parliamentary democracy.

S.N.Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India the late K.R.Narayanan and had a tenure as Director in the Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.


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