May 18, 2012

1100 words from Central Hall on 60 years of Parliament

It’s a ritual I’ve grown up with. Every Sunday, wherever I am in the country or the world, I go to church. I try not to miss church, irrespective of whether I’ve been out late on Saturday — a frequent occurrence in my younger years though, alas, not at 50 — or if I’ve come in on an early-morning flight on Sunday (a regular phenomenon in these travel-packed days).

Friends and acquaintances have often asked me why I go to church with such regularity and discipline. I attribute it to my childhood and my upbringing. We are a small family, and like so many other Indian parents — irrespective of religious background — my parents inculcated in their children a strong sense of faith and humility before God.

There was a secular reason too, I suspect. The Anglo-Indian community I belong to is a minuscule minority — actually a minority within a minority. We make up a tiny, decimal point percentage of Indian Christians, who by themselves make up only two per cent of India’s people. Going to church every Sunday was for Anglo-Indians not just a renewal of their covenant with God; it was also the invocation of a sense of community. It is no different for the Muslim who greets his co-religionists after the namaaz at the masjid; or for the Hindu who turns up with his family for the aarti at the local mandir every evening. Even when we pretend to be different, we Indians are actually quite similar.

I digress from my story. On Sunday, May 13, I didn’t go to church. I missed the priest’s sermon, the lesson for the day and the singing of the hymn. Yet, I did it knowingly and willingly and for a special reason. I had a date for the ages, an appointment I was confident I would tell my grandchildren about — a Sunday session called to commemorate Parliament’s 60th anniversary. It was the diamond jubilee of the first sitting of Parliament, on May 13, 1952.

I am a new entrant to Parliament, but an old devotee — and a person whose faith is renewed every day the House is in session. To go to Parliament is to experience the aura and magnificence, the tingling sensation and the deep, profound emotion that one can only experience in a place of worship. Parliament is indeed a place of worship: it is a shrine to the people of India.

Those are not empty words. I cannot adequately describe my first day there as an MP, my first hour, my first moment, just walking in. I’m not trying to prove a point, for there is no point to prove. Even I didn’t expect Parliament to have that impact on me. Nevertheless, when I walked in, when I looked at the array of faces and accoutrements — a sari worn in a particular manner, a turban from a specific region — heard the languages and the buzz around (no, not every parliamentarian speaks TV-studio Hinglish; most live in the real India), I was entranced.

Why? There are three reasons, though only one of them was obvious to me on that first day, and it was a personal thought. I am not the first Anglo-Indian in Parliament. Two seats in the Lok Sabha are reserved for our community. In the past a stalwart such as Frank Anthony, the great legal mind, has been part of Parliament. So have generals and educationists among Anglo-Indians and so was, for a short while, my father Neil ’Brien. Even so, I was — and am — the first Anglo-Indian to be elected to Parliament, albeit elected indirectly to the Rajya Sabha.

This is my achievement but in many ways, and in many greater ways, it is India’s achievement. An Anglo-Indian and a Christian, part of a tiny community that is probably smaller than the Gujarati population of Alaska, was deemed worthy of representing “Maa, Maati, Manush” of West Bengal in Parliament. Here he joined 800 other Indians — business tycoons who drive to Parliament in limousines, and poor, grassroots MPs who trudge up to the parliamentary bus; men from Puducherry and women from Punjab; the MP who brings with him the earthy richness of Kutch and the MP who brings the lush intensity of Kamrup.

We often speak of India’s incredible diversity and its inclusiveness. In Parliament, I have experienced it like never before. The very fact that I am an MP is stirring evidence of that all-embracing warmth of India, and of our democracy. Which other society can make such a claim? Which other democracy would have made place for someone like me, and done it willingly and wholeheartedly?

The second reason became apparent to me in my first week. Parliament is an education, a university from which you can never graduate — for you never stop learning. I have been part of debating teams in school. More seriously, I have been part of studio debates in which I have used arguments and clever lines to take on opponents. Nothing, believe me nothing, compares with Parliament. When M.S. Swaminathan stands up a seat in front of me and talks of the agrarian crisis, the problems of the Indian farmer and the acute scarcity of foodgrain storage facilities, there are no anchors, no ad breaks, no drama — just stubborn facts and grave wisdom.

The reservoirs of knowledge I find myself surrounded by are overwhelming. To listen to a fine exchange between two brilliant lawyers — one representing the treasury benches and the other the Opposition, dissecting the finer points of a proposed law, to hear the story of a village sarpanch who became an MP, is not just a process of education. It is a privilege.

My final reason is, again, a personal confession. There are moments in the House when I just switch off and stop being a participant. I become a spectator, a voyeur, a hungry devotee absorbing all around me. The debates, the exchanges, the earthy humour and at once the rigour, the bitter contest and yet the easy camaraderie, the portraits of giants in Central Hall, the burden of legacy and the privilege of being inside these hallowed rooms: I will ever be grateful for this.

As members of Parliament, we are not owners of its spirit; we are merely caretakers for the next generation. We hold it in trust. Let us ever be conscious of that; let us not let down that trust.