On November 29, the first day of the winter session of Parliament, 12 Rajya Sabha members from five opposition parties were suspended for the rest of the session. This punitive measure had been imposed because they had allegedly obstructed the functioning of the Rajya Sabha on the last day of the previous monsoon session.

This is the first time a member of Parliament has been suspended for an act in the previous session. In addition, this is reported to be the highest number of Rajya Sabha members suspended at one go.

The Opposition has alleged that these suspensions go against the rules of procedure governing the functioning of the Rajya Sabha. However, Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu has refused to revoke the suspension, saying that it is within the rules.

What happened?

The monsoon session of Parliament, which was held in July and August, was marked by disruptions in both houses over issues such as the three controversial farm laws and the alleged use of military-grade Pegasus spyware to target journalists and activists.

On August 11, the last day of the monsoon session, the proceedings in the Rajya Sabha were disrupted and the chairman adjourned the house. The Rajya Sabha Parliamentary Bulletin from that day lists the names of 33 members of Parliament for allegedly obstructing the proceedings of the House.

On November 29, the first day of the winter session, Pralhad Joshi, the minister of parliamentary affairs, moved a motion under Rule 256 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States. It called for the suspension of 12 members of Parliament for allegedly “wilfully obstructing” the business of the Rajya Sabha “through their unprecedented acts of misconduct, contemptuous, unruly, and violent behaviour” on the last day of the monsoon session.

The motion was passed through a voice vote and the 12 members of Parliament were suspended for the rest of the session.

Out of the 12 suspended members, six belong to the Congress party, two each to the Trinamool Congress and Shiv Sena, and one each to the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Members of Opposition parties hold placards and shout slogans in the Lok Sabha against the suspension of 12 MPs. Credit: PTI.

Why is the Opposition contesting this?

According to the Opposition, this suspension goes against the rules governing conduct in the Rajya Sabha. In a letter to the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the leader of Opposition in the house, Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharje, claimed that the suspension did not follow the procedure prescribed in Rule 256. He also pointed out that even though the Rajya Sabha is a continuous institution, the winter session was a new session since the monsoon session was prorogued, marking an end to it. (More later on what it means for a house to be prorogued.)

The Opposition has complained that the members were not given a chance to be heard. They also argued that out of the 12 members who were suspended, the names of only 11 were present in the August 11 bulletin. There seems to be no justification for why these 11 names were picked and the other 22 were excluded or how one member, whose name was not even in the bulletin, was selected for suspension.

What does Rule 256 say?

Rule 256 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States deals with the procedure required for the suspension of a member of the Rajya Sabha. As per Rule 256(1), the chairman of the house “if he deems it necessary, [may] name a member who disregards the authority of the Chair or abuses the rules of the Council by persistently and willfully obstructing the business” of the house.

As per Rule 256(2), after the member is named, a motion can be moved for their suspension for a maximum period of the “remainder of the session”.

In this case, the opposition claims that the chairman never called out the names of the members as required under Rule 256(1), and this negates the suspension motion which was passed under Rule 256.

PDT Achary, former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha, told Scroll.in: “These are all part of the same transaction: naming the member, motion [for suspension] and suspension. It has to take place then and there.” He added that as far as he understood, the chair immediately adjourned the house after disruptions in the Rajya Sabha on August 11.

“Under these rules, the chair should have named those members and then the motion should have come that they should have been suspended,” he said. “This was not done.”

Why is Rajya Sabha a continuing institution?

The Rajya Sabha is a continuing institution, unlike the Lok Sabha. To understand the functioning of the houses of the Parliament, it is important to understand three terms: dissolution, prorogation and adjournment.

Dissolution refers to ending the life of the Lok Sabha. As per Article 83 of the Constitution, the Rajya Sabha is never dissolved. However, the Lok Sabha is automatically dissolved at the end of a five-year term. The President can dissolve the Lok Sabha sooner if the Union Cabinet approves it. On dissolution of the Lok Sabha, all pending bills lapse.

However, both houses of the Parliament are “prorogued” from time to time by the President of India. Prorogation marks a break between two sessions of the houses without dissolving them. A pending bill in either house does not lapse on prorogation.

An adjournment is a “postponement of the sitting or proceedings of the House from one time to another specified for the reassembling of the House.” The sessions in both houses are adjourned at the end of each day, usually with a pre-decided time on when they will convene again. At the end of a session, the house is adjourned “sine die” – that is without a setting a date to reconvene. It is after this that the President prorogues the house.

In this case, the President had prorogued the Rajya Sabha on August 31, thus marking an end to the monsoon session.

Therefore, while Venkaiah Naidu, the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, is emphasising that the Rajya Sabha is a “continuing institution” which is never dissolved, the Opposition claims that even so, the sessions do not have continuity. They point out that “[i]f the House had only been adjourned and then reconvened without any prorogation, the argument of continuity would merit any justification”.

“[For] something which happened in the last session, you cannot take action against them in the next session,” said Achary. “There is no rule which permits this. Action must have been taken then and there.”