New Delhi, Feb. 13: A rogue burst of pepper spray. A consequent bolt of shock, and panicked screaming. Scuffles. Skirmishes. Shutdowns. Shame.
The contentious Telangana statehood bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha amid such unseemly debris of unparliamentary practice this afternoon.
In the process, political reporters found momentary eligibility as war correspondents; the Lok Sabha Press Gallery had suddenly been transformed into the ringside on an explosive, fuming battleground.
Lagadapati Rajagopal, millionaire expelled Congress member from Vijayawada, had given his anti-Telangana virulence the nebulous but toxic shape of a pepper cannon turned on his honourable colleagues. Perhaps for the first time in India’s parliamentary history, the dominant decibel of the House was the sound of MPs choking on their usually very vocal chords.
The Telegraph had a perch of enviable vantage on the unprecedented scenes unfolding in the benches below. Its assigned seat on the scribes’ balcony is bolt above where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi sit; neither was present to witness. It is anybody’s guess if they considered themselves fortunate for being absent, or they missed out on a slice of parliamentary history, dubious though it was.
This was not the first time Parliament has witnessed turbulence, within or without. The terror attack of 2011 must rank as the most shocking moment in the annals of Indian legislatures. But Rajagopal’s spray assault was a mortifying stunner for it came from a member of the House.
The spew of pepper fumes let out by Rajagopal was first thought by many to be lethal gas; MPs began a mad scramble to flee the House, coughing, panting, their eyes blistered and leaking tears. A team of the National Disaster Response Force, permanently stationed at Parliament, later declared the pepper spray “non-noxious”, but by then a poisonous stain had already ridden parliamentary reputation.
It was all started by Telugu Desam MP from Narasaraopet M. Venugopala Reddy who shot into the well of the House and shattered the secretary-general’s glass tabletop with a sharp object some alleged to be a knife, others a small pickaxe. He then proceeded to shatter a computer screen on the secretary-general’s desk. Reddy himself claimed his weapon was not a knife or pickaxe but the metal end of a microphone he had yanked off the Lok Sabha benches.
Just as Raj Babbar and Arun Yadav, both of the Congress, moved in to contain Venugopala, Rajagopal sneaked in and let loose his pepper canister. All hell broke loose.
Speaker Meira Kumar, herself afflicted, immediately adjourned the Lok Sabha and rushed out, possibly to escape the impact of the spray.
Four MPs —Vinay Kumar Pande, Ponnam Prabhakar, Balram Nai and Narayana Rao — were rushed to the nearby Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. They complained of suffocation, irritation in the eyes and heavy coughing. They were discharged after first aid.
Rajagopal acknowledged he used “pepper spray” and said grandly that it was a “legitimate weapon of self-defence” which he had used in the interest of Andhra Pradesh.
“I used pepper spray and not some lethal weapon. I regularly carry it in my pocket. Today I used it to defend the people of Andhra Pradesh from the injustice being meted out by the Congress,” he said later. Rajagopal also alleged that he was beaten up by Congress members.
The Speaker termed the attack a “blot” on Parliament and suspended 16 MPs from the Congress and the TDP. Most of these MPs hail from the Seemandhra region and are opposed to the creation of Telangana. The MPs suspended under Rule 374A would not be allowed to enter the Lok Sabha for the next five days.
The Speaker, however, refrained from taking action against ministers in the government who too were in the well of the House to lodge their protest. Some of them were holding placards.
The attack happened despite apprehensions of unruly behaviour and preventive measures being taken by Parliament security, the government and the ruling Congress.
With the Lok Sabha Speaker unwilling to depute marshals inside the House, the Congress had deputed its physically strong MPs to form a security a ring around Speaker Meira Kumar and home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde who had to introduce the bill.
But of any effort at political management to forestall today’s scenes, there was no sign from the treasury benches.
Andhra’s Congress chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy rubbed it in, making a reference to the Prime Minister’s lament yesterday when the interim rail budget presentation was disrupted.
“The Prime Minister says his heart bleeds over such incidents. But he should understand that hearts of crores of Telugu people are bleeding because of the undemocratic acts of the Centre,” the chief minister said in Hyderabad.