India suspends 141 lawmakers as ruling BJP accused of stifling opposition

NEW DELHI, INDIA  MAY 27: India gets a new Parliament Building which will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made in the shape of a triangle this will replace the old circular building, seen here on May 27, 2023 at New Delhi, India. Made at a cost of over $250 million the building will have modern facilities. Workers are giving finishing touches to the building and its exterior. (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Getty Images)

India’s parliament building on May 27, 2023.Pallava Bagla/Corbis News/Getty ImagesNew DelhiCNN — 

Opposition lawmakers are accusing India’s government of an attack on democracy after dozens of them were suspended from parliament this week, the latest twist in a historic dispute between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a newly formed alliance that is seeking to unseat them next year.

House speakers have suspended a total of 141 opposition lawmakers – 95 from the lower house and 46 from the upper chamber – according to a tally by CNN affiliate CNN News18, in what one rights group said was a record.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP has a majority in both houses and is now expected to legislate almost unopposed for the remainder of the session that ends Friday.

The suspensions come as parliament is set to debate a controversial criminal reform bill, which Mallikarjun Kharge, chief of the main opposition Congress party, has said could “unleash draconian powers and impede citizen’s rights.”

Modi’s government “does not want the people of India to hear out the Opposition, while these Bills are debated and deliberated,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

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The suspensions were enacted following a major security breach in parliament last week when two men stormed the chamber, chanting slogans and releasing colored gas. The opposition lawmakers demanded a parliamentary debate on the breach – only to be suspended by their respective house speakers for causing disorder.

“For the first time in my parliamentary career of nearly 15 years, I too entered the well of the House holding a placard calling for a discussion on the recent security breach,” Shashi Tharoor, a suspended Congress lawmaker, wrote on X. “I did so out of solidarity with my (Congress) colleagues, who have been unjustly suspended for demanding accountability from the government.”

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Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, speaks to members of the media ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, July 20, 2023.

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Jairam Ramesh, another suspended Congress lawmaker, described the suspensions as a “complete purge.” The removal of opposition lawmakers occurred “so that draconian bills are passed without meaningful debate,” he claimed on X.

Describing the suspensions as a “record number,” the New York-based Human Rights Foundation said it “strongly condemns India’s ongoing crackdown on the opposition and critics,” in a statement posted on X on Tuesday.

Most of the suspended MPs are part of an alliance known as INDIA, a coalition of opposition parties that is looking to defeat Modi and the BJP in next year’s general election, expected in May.

The BJP has been repeatedly accused by its critics of stifling opposition and undermining democracy in parliament. It has repeatedly denied the allegations.

CNN has reached out to the BJP for comment. On X, the party said the lawmakers were suspended for their conduct in parliament.

In an interview with a Hindi-language newspaper on Sunday, Modi said the security breach was a serious matter that should be investigated, but one that does not require a parliamentary debate.

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