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In letter, Shashi Tharoor urges LS Speaker to hold MeitY, MHA, and DoT officials in contempt

Referring to parliamentary guidelines, Tharoor contended that the officials had not been excused by him from attending the committee meeting which was held in the wake of the Pegasus revelations.

Days after officials from MeitY, MHA, and DoT did not appear for the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology’s meeting regarding “citizens privacy and security”, the committee Chairman Shashi Tharoor has written to the Lok Sabha speaker saying that the act was “in clear contempt of the house.”

The letter, sent yesterday, also calls it a breach of parliamentary privilege and urges the speaker Om Birla to take cognisance and appropriate action in the matter. MediaNama has reviewed a copy of the letter.

Why it matters? The meeting on Wednesday was the first from the IT Committee to discuss, within the ambit of citizen privacy and security, the Pegasus Spyware controversy which has disrupted multiple proceedings in Parliament during the monsoon session and led to widespread protests from opposition members. The Pegasus controversy stems from reports by an international consortium of 17 news organisations that revealed the (potential) use of Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware on opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Karnataka politicians and key aides, activists, journalists, bureaucrats, ministers, and so on. So far, the government has not categorically denied purchasing or using the software.

A timeline of what happened – according to Tharoor

According to reports, MHA Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla, MeitY Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney, and DoT Chairman and Secretary Anshu Prakash were to appear before the committee on July 28. According to Tharoor, the ministries had previously confirmed their participation in the meeting which was first notified on July 20.

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2:33 PM- Ministry of Home Affairs

The MHA had allegedly forwarded their mail at 2:33 PM seeking exemption from attending the meeting “on account of urgent and pressing commitments related to the ensuing parliament session.”

2:44 PM- Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology

Tharoor says that MeitY had ‘forwarded’ an email at 2:44 PM that day seeking exemption from attendance as the chairperson of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill had requested an urgent meeting with the Secretary and senior MeitY officials for ‘clarification on the PDP Bill’ at 3:45 PM.

2:52 PM- Department of Telecommunications

The letter says a ‘similar communication’ was received from the DoT around 2:52 PM saying that its secretary cannot appear before the committee because of urgent matters relating to Parliamentary Questions listed for the next day (July 29).

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4 PM – Meeting scheduled to be held

In his letter, Tharoor says he was informed by the Committee branch of the Lok Sabha secretariat just before the meeting that the ministries had sent emails around 3 PM saying that their respective officials will not be able to appear before the committee.

Contravention with ‘Directions of Speaker’

As per section 59 (1) of the Directions of Speaker

“Where a Ministry or Department or Undertaking is required to give evidence before a Committee on any matter, the Ministry or Department or Undertaking shall be represented by the Secretary or the Head of the Department or Undertaking, as the case may be:

Provided that the Chairperson of the Committee may, on a request being made in this behalf, permit any other senior officer to represent the Ministry or Department or Undertaking before the Committee”

Tharoor refers to the above in his letter and further notes that the three officials were not excused by him from attendance.
He then quotes from the ‘Procedure for Securing Attendance of Witnesses’ as written in M.N. Kaul and S.L. Shakdher’s book ‘Practice and Procedure of Parliament’  to say that the three officials were in contempt of the House, and ‘undermined the authority of a Parliamentary Committee’.

“If a witness fails to appear before a Committee when summoned or called by a letter or a person refuses to produce any document when so required by a Committee, his conduct constitutes contempt of the House and may be reported to the House by the Committee” — Practice and Procedure of Parliament

Other disruptions of the committee proceedings

  • On Wednesday, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey told MediaNama that he, along with 17 other BJP committee members, had moved a no-confidence motion to remove Shashi Tharoor from the chairmanship of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology.
  • Earlier on Wednesday, sources confirmed to MediaNama that, although BJP members of the committee attended the proceedings they refused to register their presence in the committee attendance register. This caused a lack of quorum for the meeting to continue.
  • On Tuesday, five BJP MPs walked out of the IT committee’s meeting that was held to hear views from stakeholders on the functioning of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in the context of the draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021.

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Written By

I cover health and education technology for MediaNama. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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