Temple of democracy – a misnomer?

Personal respect and democracy go together. Only then can we continue to refer to the Parliament as a ‘temple’ of democracy

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The latest incident in the National Assembly has prompted such a widespread response in the media that it would be superfluous to make any further comment. It was a confrontation between the Speaker and a member of the Opposition, whereby the former made what is perceived to be an unacceptable remark about a facial skin condition the member suffers from.

It would seem that, according to the Hansard, the Speaker’s remarks were a riposte to the member’s own repetitive one directed at him, namely, ‘tonne boire,’ (‘you’re drunk’) as pointed out by one lady commentator on a radio programme last Sunday. She also added out that many a time the ‘honourable members’ behave like schoolchildren, carrying out conversations while another member or leader is standing and reading out an answer, and this causes disturbance and irritation to the chair, inviting rebukes or calls to order.

Be that as it may, it is a fact that there have been unpleasant verbal exchanges in the past as well, using language that does not befit the sacredness one associates with a temple, besides threats of physical violence (‘tombe dehors’) that have also marred the atmosphere of the ‘august’ house.

However, a search online leads to a Wikipedia article about ‘Legislative violence,’ which reveals that there are antecedents galore. Thus, we read: ‘Legislative violence broadly refers to any violent clashes between members of a legislature, often physically, inside the legislature and triggered by divisive issues and tight votes. Such clashes have occurred in many countries across time, and notable incidents still regularly occur.

Although the sight of brawling politicians is incongruous with a legislature’s stately image, its occupants, like in any other workplace, are still prone to stress and anger. The confrontational nature of politics, regardless of their location, and the high stakes involved often add to the simmering tensions.’

Further, US Congressman Galusha A. Grow, no stranger to legislative violence, described the precursors thus:

‘Crowd some hundreds of men together on a hot afternoon or night; fill them with the fire of partisan ardor; perplex them with doubt as to the personal gain or loss that may follow their vote on the question at issue, and instill them with envy of, and ill-will toward, their fellows, and you have abundant material for a row. All that is needed is an excuse, and that is too often found’ – (Grow, Galusha A. (1900). “The Last Days of the Duello in Congress”. The Saturday Evening Post).

After a mob forced their way into and attacked the Capitol in the pre-electoral period last year, killing one policeman, the Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: ‘Each day, when members enter the Capitol, this temple of democracy, we will remember his sacrifice.’

Verbal violence is one end of the spectrum which ‘simmering tensions’ leads to, the extreme being physical violence, ranging from throwing of objects such as paper and books of rules to water bottles, and even fist fights! The Wikipedia article, which covers 51 countries, gives examples of such ‘brawls’ that are undoubtedly a national dishonour.

Closer to us, in India, the Monsoon session came to an abrupt end two days ago with both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha being adjourned sine die two days ahead of schedule. Why? Because ‘Opposition MPs climbed on the officials’ table, waved black cloth and threw files when the Rajya Sabha began a discussion on farmers’ protest against new reform laws. Several MPs stood on a table, while others crowded around it shouting anti-government slogans.’

This made the Rajya Sabha Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu break down as he expressed deep anguish, and who said he couldn’t sleep because of the sacrilege in Parliament which he regarded as the ‘temple of democracy.’ He appealed ‘to the collective consciousness of the House to seriously reflect on what happened yesterday and explore remedies’, because ‘failure to do so would certainly render our parliamentary democracy irrelevant,’ and ‘each member had to make a choice to be either the best parliamentarian or the worst disruptor.’

It is instructive to quote this extract from ‘Feet of Clay: Threat to the Temples of Democracy’ by F.F. Ridley (Parliamentary Affairs, Volume 48, Issue 4, October 1995):

‘Democracy also depends on trust in those who govern us, going beyond the government to cover the political establishment as a whole, government and opposition, leaders and back benchers. The growing public mistrust of politicians which Britain and other countries face today is not just functional, related to the seemingly inevitable failure to assure economic growth and security of employment or law and order at home and peace abroad; it is also personal. Without personal respect for its political establishment, democracy is undermined. Everyone sees enemies in the political establishment; that is proper so long as respect remains.’

Personal respect and democracy go together. Only then can we continue to refer to the Parliament as a ‘temple’ of democracy. Otherwise, it’s a misnomer.

* Published in print edition on 13 August 2021

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