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Mainstream, VOL LV No 12 New Delhi March 11, 2017

Tribute to Rabi Ray

Sunday 12 March 2017

by S.N. Sahu

Rabi Ray is no more. He breathed his last on March 6, 2017 at Cuttack due to age-related ailments. He was more than an admirable and outstanding figure of India’s public life. He was the only public figure of Odisha who could be called a statesman and had the dignity, grace and stature of a pan-Indian leader deriving his strength from his value-based life. With liberal outlook and vision he commanded appreciation from all quarters cutting across political and party affiliations and enjoyed an exalted position high above electoral and power politics.

He hailed from a zamindar family and abhorred all that was associated with zamindari and other exploitative practices. Rebelling against his own family he granted land rights to the farmers who were tilling the land owned by his kith and kin perpetuating the culture of landlordism. Deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Rammanohar Lohia he remained in the forefront of the socialist movement and engaged himself in the arduous struggle for reconstruction of the Indian society along socialist principles. It was he who unfurled the national flag in Ravenshaw College by bringing down the Union Jack in pre-independent India and became a hero for the youth of that era. Recently Professor Manoranjan Mohanty, while speaking at an event organised by the Ravenshaw University to commemorate its 150th anniversary, referred to this heroic act of Rabi Ray for the cause of nationalism.

He was the first public figure from Odisha to have become the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. His crowning achievement in getting unanimously chosen as the presiding officer of the Lower House of Indian Parliament immensely added to his shining profile which included his record of service as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha in the 1960s and Health Minister of India during the Janata Government (1977 to 1979). His assumption of the office of the Lok Sabha Speaker was an event of historic significance for our parliamentary democracy. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the decisions he took while discharging his responsibilities as the Speaker would go down in the history of our democracy as path-breaking and trend-setting enriching and revitalising the tradition of our representative democracy.

A product of our freedom struggle he was greatly shaped by its enduring values. Identi-fying himself with the struggle of the people of the erstwhile princely states of Odisha he actively mobilised them and championed their rights and liberties. He was one of the few Speakers in the annals of our parliamentary democracy whose worldview was shaped by the struggle for independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. He greatly enriched the legacy of the office of the Speaker by his dignified and gracious conduct. An admirable personality of our public life, he represented the elegance and simplicity of our civilisation and brought these to bear upon the office of the Speaker from the day he occupied that exalted position. His decision not to use the Mercedes car, which was the official car of his predecessor, instead preferring an ambassador car refreshingly conveyed the message to the whole nation that high offices and positions represent not only power and authority but also moral values the central aspects of which are simplicity, integrity, probity and plain-living.

A socialist by conviction and faith he wholesomely integrated with his ideology the essential teachings of Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Rammanohar Lohia, Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. With such broad outlook he went beyond the routine aspects of the responsibilities he was called upon to take up at the national level and gave a much larger dimension to them.

It is well known that Parliament is the supreme legislative institution of our democracy invested with the power to legislate, deliberate issues and hold the executive to account. Rabi Ray as the Speaker of the Ninth Lok Sabha took the pioneering decision to establish Subject Commi-ttees which are now called the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committees. These provide the fora to the Members of Parliament for examining the policies and programmes of the government and ensuring accountability of the executive to the legislature. It may be recalled that on assuming the office of the Speaker he addressed a press conference and stated that his priority, as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha would be to start the Subject Committees of Indian Parliament. Initially, he established four such Committees. In the history of Indian Parliament such a decision of Rabi Ray would go down as an extraordinary step in expanding the role of Parliament to fine-tune the process of governance. In fact, those Committees were first established in the House of Commons in 1979. Ten years later, when a review was done to assess the functioning of such Committees in Britain it was stated that the establishment of those Committees constituted the parliamentary innovation of the 20th century. Following the pattern of the House of Commons, Rabi Ray created such Committees which were later expanded in 1993 and the late Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, K.R. Narayanan, inaugurated them. While doing so, K.R. Narayanan acknowledged the role of Rabi Ray in starting such Committees and complimented him for his trend-setting step. If today the Reports of such Committees are being widely quoted for streamlining the policies and programmes of the Government of India and holding the bureaucracy to account, then the credit must go to Rabi Ray who became the founding father of such Committees of the Indian Parliament. He deserves rich tributes for strengthening parliamentary democracy and upholding the supremacy of Parliament for the cause of accountability and good governance.

Rabi Ray was an exemplary leader of India who was held in high esteem by political leaders cutting across party lines and ideological barriers. What actually heightened and added lustre to his stature was his honesty and integrity. Today, when so much is being talked about the rising levels of corruption gravely affecting the lives of common people and our national progress, it is extremely important to recall the life and work of Rabi Ray who upheld the high standards of conduct both in his private and public life. In fact one of the factors which led the Ninth Lok Sabha to unanimously choose him as its Speaker was his high moral character and uprightness. His impeccable record in remaining honest and his lifelong struggle against corruption defined his personality and made him an iconic figure in the politics and public life of India. Many decisions he took as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha flowed from his firm adherence to the basic and fundamental values of honesty and integrity. He was the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha who took a strong stand against his own Secretary-General, Shri Subhash Kashyap, when he found him wanting. He gave extension to Shri Kashyap and yet took a firm step in terminating his services. It was a painful decision that he took and the leaders of all political parties stood by him. Even late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was the leader of the Opposition in the Ninth Lok Sabha, came to him and told him that he was with the Speaker in endorsing his action against the Secretary-General. When Shri Kashyap made allegations against Rabi Ray in public he refused to join issue with his officer. Later he revised the termination order and allowed him to retire from service.

Rabi Ray took yet another remarkable and historic step in upholding honesty and integrity in the judiciary when he admitted an impeachment motion, on the last day of the Ninth Lok Sabha, against Justice Ramaswamy of the Supreme Court for his acts of omission and commission during his tenure as the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. It was the first ever impeachment motion against a judge of the highest court of our country in the history of independent India. Today, when the society and government are seized of the issue of removing corruption from all institutions including the judiciary and when judicial accountability is a major theme in public discourse, the bold decision of Rabi Ray as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to admit the first ever impeachment motion against a judge of the highest judiciary assumes enormous significance. His decision was challenged in the Supreme Court on the ground that a motion admitted in the Lok Sabha would lapse with the dissolution of the House. It was argued that with the dissolution of the Ninth Lok Sabha the impeachment motion admitted by Rabi Ray had lapsed. However, the Supreme Court gave a historic judgement that the impeachment motion is a different motion and, therefore, it would not lapse with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. Eventually, his decision stood the test of judicial scrutiny and became a landmark in the history of parliamentary democracy for salvaging the judiciary from corruption and unethical practices. His motion was finally taken up by the Lok Sabha where it could not be passed by requisite majority because the Congress Party abstained from voting.

Almost 18 years later, when the Rajya Sabha Chairman, M. Hamid Ansari, admitted an impea-chment motion against a judge of the Kolkata High Court in 2010 and it was taken up for discussion and voting on the floor of the House, Rabi Ray’s decision to admit the impeachment motion against Justice Ramaswamy was recalled by many as a trend-setting decision in exercising the powers of the presiding officer to admit an impeachment motion against a sitting judge. In fact, Shri D. Raja, a Member of the Rajya Sabha, while participating in the discussion in the House on the impeachment motion against the judge of the Kolkata High Court, did say that Rabi Ray had admitted the first ever impeachment motion in the history of our Parliament. In this sense, Rabi Ray’s tenure as the Speaker would be remembered not only for upholding the dignity and authority of the House but also for his heroic action against corruption and sleaze in the higher judiciary. In fact he is the only Speaker whose name would be gratefully remembered for his courageous step against corruption and for the cause of honesty and integrity in the judiciary which is one of the key organs of governance.

It is well known that during his tenure as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha a decision was taken to unveil and install the portraits of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Dr Rammanohar Lohia in the Central Hall of Parliament. Such a decision of Rabi Ray was of great significance in remembering the stalwarts of India’s public life whose contributions to nation-building were enormous. It was rather sad that the portrait of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, did not find a place in the Central Hall of our Parliament where the Constituent Assembly met and framed the Constitution. It was Rabi Ray as the Speaker who took the decision to adorn the Central Hall with the portrait of Dr B.R. Ambedkar.

A presiding officer is the repository of the dignity and authority of the House. Rabi Ray as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha amply demonstrated his power and authority to remain impartial and give appropriate ruling which commanded respect from leaders of all political parties. In this context, one may recall his historic ruling which he gave in January 1991 when some Members of the Janata Dal caused a split in the original party and some others defied the party whip while voting in the House and attracting the provisions of the Anti-Defection Law. In the annals of parliamentary democracy his ruling is cited for his neutrality and objectivity in understanding a complex situation arising out of split and defiance of whip. Rabi Rai declared 25 Members of the Janata Dal, who claimed to have split from the party, as unattached.

And later when 30 other Members of the same party joined them and claimed that they had also split from the party, Rabi Ray issued show-cause notices to them to explain as to why they would not be subjected to disqualification under the Anti-Defection Law. He also issued show-cause notices to seven other Members who had violated the whip while voting in the Lok Sabha in favour of the Chandra Shekhar Government. Some affected Members filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court praying for a stay of the Speaker’s action. When the Delhi High Court issued a notice to Speaker Rabi Rai, he refused to submit himself to the jurisdiction of the High Court and declined to accept the notice on the ground that he as the Speaker represented the supremacy of Parliament on such matters and no other authority could examine the decision of the Speaker. However, the High Court passed an order without staying the action of the Speaker and expressed the hope that the Speaker would not take any adverse action pending disposal of the writ petition. The then Law Minister, Subramaniam Swamy, while meeting Rabi Ray in the Speaker’s Chamber, asked him to withhold his ruling on disquali-fication of the Members who were issued show-cause notices by him. He also threatened to arrest Shri Ray in the event of his action to disqualify the Members. President R. Venkataraman in his memoirs My Presidential Years wrote that many Members of the Lok Sabha demanded on the floor of the House for the resignation of Shri Swamy for having threatened to arrest the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Rabi Ray showed rare magnanimity when he urged the House not to blow up the incident and requested everybody to forget it. However, the Members did not relent and when Shri Swamy wanted to speak and clarify, he was shouted down. Shri Swamy later informed President Venkataraman that he had only told the Speaker that any decision on his part to disqualify the Members when the matter was pending in the High Court would amount to contempt of the Court and the Speaker would be liable to be arrested. After hearing such an account from Shri Subramaniam Swamy President Venkataraman noted that pendency of a matter before the Court did not mean that the Court had given a stay on it and Shri Swamy’s understanding that the Speaker could be guilty of contempt of Court was untenable. Then President Venkataraman critically reflected on the Law Minister, Shri Subramaniam Swamy, and wrote in his memoir: “It is a pity that a country which produced legal luminaries like Motilal Nehru, C.R. Das, Ambedkar, Katju and Alladin should have a Law Minister without qualifications in law.”

Later when the Delhi High Court formally stayed the action of the Speaker to proceed against 25 Members on the basis of the Anti-Defection Law, the entire Lok Sabha protested against the order of the High Court against the Speaker who informed the House that he was not submitting himself to the jurisdiction of the High Court and proceeding to examine the petitions for disqualification. Rajiv Gandhi took the stand that he and his party would stand by the Speaker’s decision in matters relating to defection and on the supremacy of Parliament. When the entire House (Lok Sabha) stood in favour of the Speaker the Delhi High Court withdrew its stay order against the Speaker and categorically accepted the final authority of the Speaker in such matters. Later the Speaker, Rabi Ray, gave a ruling recognising the Members as a separate formation and disqualified those Members who violated the whip to vote in favour of the Chandra Shekhar Government. Such a ruling was hailed by all concerned and President Venkataraman described it as a balanced ruling. The above narrative clearly brought out the courage of conviction of Rabi Ray as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha not to submit himself to the jurisdiction of any other authority in matters concerning Parliament. It was a rare example of a presiding officer who zealously safeguarded the authority of Parliament and his balanced and legally correct stand commanded respect even from the judiciary. It is worthwhile to note that when the successor of Rabi Ray gave a ruling concerning the split of a political party there emerged a controversy and all concerned referred to Rabi Ray’s ruling on the abovementioned similar matter to signify the importance and impartiality of the office of the Speaker.

It was understood from many news reports of the mid-1990s that Rabi Ray would have occupied the office of the Vice-President of India in 1997. But late I.K. Gujral, the then Prime Minister of India, along with Chandrababu Naidu, the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, took the initiative in favour of Krishan Kant. On many occasions Rabi Ray shared with his close friends that Chandrababu Naidu had requested him to become the Governor of a State. However, Rabi Ray flatly refused to accept the offer. He also told many of us that when Mulayam Singh, as the Chief Minister of UP, wanted him to come as the Governor of Utttar Pradesh, he declined to occupy that post. He had told me that to assume the office of the Governor would mean to abide by the words of an official of the Home Ministry of the Union Government. It is indeed instructive that when leaders in public life prefer to be Governors of any State, Rabi Ray had the moral courage and stature to refuse it. All these testify to his impeccable credentials to remain high above any office.

He was one MP from Odisha who always spoke in Hindi in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in tune with the socialist philosophy which mandated every socialist leader to use the national language for communication and articulation as a representative of the people.

Even after occupying the high office of the Speaker Rabi Ray displayed in ample measure his common touch and feeling and reached out to the suffering people. I recall that whenever he used to get letters from the poor and deprived sections of society requesting for help, he used to send money from his own personal sources to mitigate their suffering. His compassion and concern for them was indeed so much that he went beyond his own capacity and rendered help to them. After demitting office he told me that in reaching out to such people to alleviate their sufferings he himself had to take money from others. It was indeed incredible that the Speaker of the Lok Sabha had to incur debt for serving those who had to face difficult financial sitiations. A leader of the masses, he was a fine example of a value-based person ever ready to serve and at the same time remain committed to the high principles of public life.

In his life, he always told the young people to read Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Works. He persuaded me to read the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and I made a regular habit of going through the original writings of Gandhiji after joining late K.R. Narayanan when he was the Vice-President and President of India. In fact, when Rabi Ray was imprisoned during the Emergency and was put in Ambala Jail, he requested Krishan Kant,who later became the Vice-President of India, to provide him the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi so that he could read them in jail. It is indeed so refreshing and educative to note that a man who was in jail wanted to read Mahatma Gandhi’s writings and derive lessons from his life and work. When I came in contact with him and understood the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of his life, I found a person who was so distinct and distinguished for qualities and depth of understanding rooted in our culture, civilisation, freedom struggle and Constitution. It was indeed rare to find such a person in 21st century India. It is all the more rare to find such a person in the politics and public life of India. It is, therefore, appropriate that we document his life and work for the benefit of the future generations. Long Live Rabi Ray!

The author is a Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed here are personal.