Opposition leaders on Wednesday criticised the Narendra Modi government’s decision to cancel the Question Hour during the Parliament session that will start on September 14 amid the coronavirus crisis. The Question Hour, the first hour in the House, allows members to address queries to the government.

Trinamool Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Derek O’Brien said the pandemic was being used as an excuse to stifle dissent. “MPs required to submit questions for Question Hour in Parliament 15 days in advance,” he tweeted. “Session starts 14 September. So Question Hour cancelled? Opposition MPs lose right to question government. A first since 1950? Parliament overall working hours remain same so why cancel Question Hour? Pandemic excuse to murder democracy.”

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said questioning the government was the oxygen of parliamentary democracy. “I said four months ago that strongmen leaders would use the excuse of the pandemic to stifle democracy and dissent,” Tharoor tweeted. “The notification for the delayed Parliament session blandly announces there will be no Question Hour. How can this be justified in the name of keeping us safe.”

Tharoor added that the government was seeking to use its “crushing majority as a rubber-stamp for whatever it wants to pass” during the monsoon session of the Parliament. “This government seeks to reduce Parliament to a notice-board,” he said. “The one mechanism to promote accountability has now been done away with.”

Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress Rajya Sabha MP, told NDTV that there was no reason to curtail the Question Hour. “How do you increase safeguard against Covid-19 by not having Question Hour?”

Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said cancelling Question Hour was a violation of a Parliament member’s right. “It also means that government is uncomfortable answering questions on their governance,” he added. “Government is answerable to people and any move to cancel Question Hour reflects the autocratic mindset of government.”

Saptagiri Sankar Ulaka, Member of the Lok Sabha, said the Modi government was scared of the Opposition and was using pandemic to avoid scrutiny.

Communist Party of India MP Binoy Viswam wrote to Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu calling the suspension unjust and demanding that the Question Hour be reinstated immediately, according to PTI. He said the suspension raised “serious questions” on the government’s intent when important developments were taking place across the country. Viswam further alleged the Centre has made sure the government’s accountability to Parliament and the people were removed.

Last week, Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury had written to Speaker Om Birla and said that cancelling Question Hour would prevent legislators from raising matters of national importance. “You will kindly appreciate the fact that raising questions in Parliament, and issues of public importance during the Zero Hour are foremost of the procedural methods available to members to vent issues of national and public importance,” Chowdhury said in his letter.

According to Hindustan Times, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has called several Opposition leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad and Chowdhury and Derek O’Brien to inform then that it will not be possible to schedule the Question Hour, claiming it would require the presence of a large number of officials in Parliament to brief ministers.

On Monday, the Centre had said that the Parliament will be in session till October 1. This will be the first Parliament session since the coronavirus-induced lockdown was imposed in the end of March. The Lok Sabha will convene from 9 am to 1 pm on the first day and from 3 pm to 7 pm till October 1, according to NDTV. The Rajya Sabha will sit from 3 pm to 7 pm the first day and 9 am to 1 pm the rest of the days. Weekends will also be working days.

Zero hour, where members to raise matters of public importance, has also been reduced to 30 minutes.

The end of the session will be “subject to exigencies of business” and will be conducted with strict physical distancing norms. Besides MPs, all those who are expected to enter the Parliament premises, including officials from ministries, representatives from the media and staff of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats, will be tested for the coronavirus.