Prime Minister Narendra Modi rejected on Friday demands to sack junior minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti for her invective-laced speech at a Delhi poll rally but his appeal to opposition parties to accept her apology keeping in mind her background triggered fresh outrage.
“Nobody can approve such things. Later, the minister apologised. She is a new minister, we know her social background, she is from a village, and she has apologised and it is the duty of senior members in the House that when a member apologises in front of such a big House, then we should also be liberal,” Modi said in the Lok Sabha, reprising the statement he made in the Rajya Sabha the day before.
“I feel when the minister had apologised, and she is a new minister, then senior leaders should request members of their parties to close the issue and move on and resume work in the interest of the country.”
"It is the duty of the distinguished members of the House that when a colleague seeks apology; we should be magnanimous," the PM added.
But, his appeal failed to mollify opposition members as they walked out of Parliament and sat in protest outside, tying black cloths across their mouths.
Modi’s statement raised questions about the BJP’s interest in Jyoti’s social background because the 47-year-old saffron-clad sadhvi or nun was born into the backward Nishad (boatmen) caste, considered a major vote bank in Uttar Pradesh that sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha.
Later, nine opposition parties demanded a censure motion in the House. “We would propose a motion of censure in the House to the effect that such comments from an MP and a minister is not acceptable and deserve to be condemned,” reads the statement drafted by CPM leader Sitaram Yechury.
Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati found fault with the BJP’s attempt to play the “Dalit card” in Jyoti’s defence, saying it was tantamount to making allegations against one community.
“The BJP is saying that she is a Dalit woman and this is untrue. The minister neither belongs to the Dalit community nor does she hail from the Scheduled Caste community. She is from the backward Nishad caste. The PM claims her background should be kept in mind. It would be improper to bring the whole Nishad community into this. There are many, including MPs, from the Nishad community in their party. If the minister is incompetent or has made an objectionable statement, she should be removed and another person from that community should replace her,” she said.
The Nishads and their so-called sub-caste, the Kashyap, inhabit swathes of the Ganga and Yamuna river banks and are considered crucial to the BJP’s design to consolidate Dalit and backward-class votes in this politically-crucial state.
Sources said the intention was clear when Modi made the first-time MP from Fatehpur a minister of state for food processing industries during last month’s cabinet expansion.
For a woman who doesn’t have formal education beyond Class 12, Jyoti has donned many roles in her life from farmhand, construction labourer, hymn singer, nun and preacher to fiery politician who fits the brand of politics the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad apparently espouse. Her caste is an added advantage.
Oppn up in arms
After Modi's statement, leader of Congress Mallikarjun Kharge said the Opposition wanted to know why such a thing happened.
"We are not against any individual" nor their background but the issue is that many BJP leaders have been making controversial statements, he said.
Such statements are creating a situation in the country where social unity is threatened, he added, and wanted to know what action the government was taking in this regard.
While the Opposition continued to agitate, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan said the protests have to stop.
E Ahamed of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) was heard saying the government was not listening to the Opposition.
Soon, members from the Congress, Left parties, IUML, BSP and the AAP staged a walkout.
Outside Parliament House, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, along with other members of the Opposition, protested against the government, saying that "democratic process" was not being allowed inside Parliament.
The protesters demanded Jyoti's resignation over her unparliamentary language at a rally and tied black scarves around their mouths during the protest.
"The attitude of the government is not to allow democratic process inside the house," said Gandhi.
"...it is a mindset of the top leadership of the country that democratic conversation should not be allowed inside the house...We are going to fight at every inch."
"We are being stopped and suppressed...," he added.
The members were also seen carrying banners reading "Protect secularism and democracy: We want united India" and "Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti Resign".
Ruckus in Rajya Sabha
In Rajya Sabha, too, Congress and other opposition parties disrupted proceedings demanding action against Jyoti forcing its adjournment.
Immediately after railway minister Suresh Pradhu took oath, the entire Opposition was on its feet raising the issue.
Barely had the listed papers been laid, slogan shouting members rushed into the Well.
"Mantri to barkhast karo (sack the minister)," they shouted.
Deputy chairman PJ Kurien took up Zero Hour mentions even as there was no relenting in slogan shouting.
Congress' Anand Sharma said the opposition benches patiently heard Modi's statement on the issue on Thursday but want to know about the government's action taken against the minister.
"It is for you and the government to sit together and come to a conclusion. What can I do?" Kurien said.
"If the members don't want the House to run, what can the Chair do?"
Treasury benches protested saying the minister has already expressed apologies and Prime Minister made statement disapproving of the comments and so the House should resume its normal functioning.
Minister of state for parliamentary affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said the Congress was stalling business of national importance despite Jyoti expressing regret.
The BJP ruled out any compromise formula amid protests, insisting that the PM’s statement should be enough to satisfy the Opposition.
But hectic negotiations were expected over the weekend to restore normality in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP doesn’t have the required numbers to pass key bills lined up for this winter session.
Jyoti, minister of state for food processing industries, had apologised in Parliament on Tuesday, reportedly on the orders of the Prime Minister, but opposition parties like the Left want her sacked and say she must face criminal charges for trying to incite communal hatred.
"The people of Delhi have to decide if they want a government of Ramzaadon (descendants of Ram) or haramzaadon (those who are illegitimately born)," Jyoti had reportedly had said at a public meeting in Delhi on Monday.
(With agency inputs)
Modi tries to pacify Oppn in Lok Sabha over Niranjan Jyoti’s hate speech