Nominated MPs such as Sonal Mansingh can contribute to the preservation of our plurality
Pre-eminent dancer and dance guru Sonal Mansingh’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha is welcome news. It brings to fruition the Constitution’s vision about that parliamentary position and its responsibilities.
The idea or philosophy behind its Article 80 (2) is simple and clear: There are among the people of India persons skilled in the arts and culture of the land, men and women of science and those devoted to one or other form of social service who may not be active in political affairs and who electoral politics may pass by, but whose experience would enrich the collective wisdom of Parliament. Such people are by the nature of their calling and circumstance unlikely to ever be elected to Parliament, unless they were to join a political party and that party were to field them in elections — a highly unlikely prospect. The President of India, advised by the Prime Minister, may nominate 12 such essentially unelectable but eminent Indians to the Rajya Sabha, once every six years.
One can imagine Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru discussing the first clutch of possible names for nominated MPs with President Rajendra Prasad and the two of them agreeing to the inaugural set. This comprised 11 eminent men and but one woman — India’s great dance pioneer Rukmini Devi Arundale of Madras. A Theosophist and proponent of vegetarianism, prohibition and every mark of abstinence, Rukmini Devi was a woman of extraordinary attractiveness, personal and intellectual. Her dance repertory was internationally renowned, as was her command over English and, thanks to her Theosophy, her globally-tuned mindset. She was, however, to bring to the Rajya Sabha an altogether unexpected and rather unique interest bordering on a passion. This was her zeal for animal rights.
This began, she said, with her experience at a railway station one day when she felt something tugging at her sari. She turned to see this was a caged monkey about to be transported somewhere for vivisection. Thus began a lifelong involvement in formulating a law and rules for giving animals protection from gratuitous pain, cruelty and death. As a nominated MP, she piloted what is called a Private Member’s Bill (as distinct from a government-sponsored bill as most bills are) for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Rukmini Devi was passionate, persuasive and determined to have her bill passed but there were practical difficulties as to its language and substance. Prime Minister Nehru urged her to drop her bill with the assurance that government would itself bring another such bill before the House, meeting her concerns. This came to pass and Rukmini Devi became the first president of the Animal Welfare Board created under the Act, a position she held until her death.
Others nominated with Rukmini Devi in 1952, included two historians — Radhakumud Mukherjee and Kalidas Nag, two scientists — Satyendranath Bose (Physics) and Sahib Singh Sokhey (Biochemist), two nationalist litterateurs — Maithilisaran Gupt and Kakasaheb Kalelkar, a lawyer, Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar, an actor – Prithviraj Kapoor, an educationist — Zakir Husain, a future President of India, and two intellectuals — NR Malkani, a Hindu from the Sind, and JM Kumarappa, a south Indian Christian. A more distinguished bunch could not have been imagined except for its gross gender imbalance. Each one of them was to make a mark, Rukmini Devi’s being the most significant, followed by Prithviraj Kapoor’s bringing up a private member’s bill seeking the abolition of the death penalty. His speech on the occasion, with Dr S Radhakrishnan in the chair, is a classic.
Over the decades the nominations have varied in stature and impact, with a very mixed set in the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi and a sharp improvement in the prime ministership of Rajiv Gandhi when President Zail Singh nominated the ornithologist Salim Ali, the novelists RK Narayan and Amrita Pritam, the painter MF Husain and the legendary sitarist, Ravi Shankar. Narayan’s maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha on the increasing weight of children’s school bags, “strapped to the back like a pack-mule” making her or him walk with hands held out like a chimpanzee with “no time to play or dream” drew all-round support and applause.
Nominated MPs can join a political party or remain independent. A clear-eyed reading of the intention of nomination is that apolitical persons be nominated. Many nominated MPs have joined the party in power, obviously out of gratitude. Some, like Rukmini Devi and, more recently, MS Swaminathan, have remained independent.
Sonal Mansingh steps, therefore, into a great tradition from where she can make an outstanding contribution to the nation, not just in her chosen field of dance and culture, but in the preservation of our plural heritage and all that makes India a civilisation beyond being a nation.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal