1962 to the Emergency: When Question Hour was dropped amid extraordinary circum...

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Suspension of the Question Hour, or the first 60 minutes of a Parliament session in which lawmakers seek direct replies from ministers, has become a issue for the Opposition parties.

But sifting through Parliament data showed that this will be the first time that there will be a temporary suspension of the Question Hour. In the past, the Question Hour had been suspended during wars and the Emergency.

However, this time around the Opposition parties are arguing that there are no such exigencies and have alleged that the government is running away from answering their questions.

1962 winter session

During the India-China war of 1962, Parliament’s winter session had skipped the Question Hour. “The Session was to commence on November 11, 1962, but due to the Chinese aggression, it was advanced,” a parliamentary report said. The war had started on October 20 and lasted until November 21.

From October 26, Parliament also made a special provision: it started daily from 12 noon instead of 11 am. While the original schedule was for 34 days, ultimately the session conducted legislative business for 26 days.

1971 winter session

In December 1971, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced the unconditional surrender of Pakistan, it saw the birth of a new nation, Bangladesh. Parliament’s winter session was in progress --- Gandhi had made that announcement in the Lok Sabha -- while the country was still at war.

According to PRS legislative research, Parliamentarian Hari Vishnu Kamath had suggested that “Parliament of the nation must continue to be in session and have the privilege of advising and guiding the government in this emergency.”

During the 1971 war, too, the daily schedule was changed. “From December 6 to 23 (due to Pakistani aggression), hours of sittings of the Lok Sabha were changed to 10 am from 1 pm and the Question Hour and Calling Attention matters were suspended,” according to the official data.

The Emergency (June 25, 1975 –March 21, 1977)

During the Emergency, imposed by the Indira Gandhi regime, Parliament continued to function but without Question Hour in at least two sessions.

Between June 1975 and March 1997 — when the Emergency was in place — five parliament sessions were to be conducted. The monsoon session of 1975 — the first after the declaration of the Emergency — didn’t have a Question Hour or time for Opposition MPs to ask questions to different ministers.

The winter session of 1976, too, didn’t have a Question Hour.

Several constitutional amendments were cleared hurriedly during this period. One of the most significant one was the 42nd Amendment that added the words “Socialist” and “Secular” to the Preamble to the Indian constitution.

2020 monsoon session

Unstarred questions, or written questions that ministers need to reply to, would be allowed during the monsoon session of Parliament, but the Question Hour would remain cancelled, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The decision has been taken at a time, when the Opposition parties have protested against the move not to schedule the Question Hour. They have called the decision an attempt by the government to avoid being questioned, and have also described it as a bid to curb their rights.

The unstarred questions would have to be submitted to the secretariat and answers would be provided on the day the question is listed (it would also be uploaded on the website), the people cited above said.

However, oral or starred questions will not be allowed -- in the interests of time -- and to ensure that the number of people in Parliament is kept low (when a question from a ministry is listed to be asked as a starred one, key ministry officials are expected to be present in Parliament).

The session may also not allow private member bills — through which Members of Parliament (MPs) seek policy or legislative changes — and the Zero Hour through which MPs raise current issues may also be limited to just half an hour.

These changes have been necessitated following an unprecedented coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak in the country.

The monsoon session is scheduled to start on September 14 and end on October 1 without any weekend breaks.

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