A day after the expulsion of Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra in an alleged cash-for-query scam, another seemingly innocuous parliament question has returned to haunt the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Minister of State for External Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi and the Ministry of External Affairs seem to have found themselves on the backfoot, while the BJP maintained a studied silence.
In response to an unstarred question on whether the government has any plans to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation and whether Israel has raised any demand from New Delhi to do so, the government’s answer was ambiguous. “Designation of an organisation as terrorist is covered under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and declaring any organisation as terrorist is considered as per the provisions of the Act by the relevant government departments.”
Sources say that perhaps, because the Israeli government was unhappy with the response, a day after the question was asked, Lekhi distanced herself from the question. “I have not signed any paper with this question and this answer,” she said in response to a post on X (formerly Twitter).
There was another tweet that asked about the official website of MEA uploading the question. The tweet questioned if Lekhi didn’t prepare the question, who did. Responding to this question, Lekhi said, “An inquiry will reveal the culprit.”
At a press conference soon after, Lekhi told reporters, “I have asked the foreign secretary to inquire and take action against those who put this question up against my name.”
She also said this issue has nothing to do with the party as it was a government matter. On being asked if Hamas should be banned, she said the concerned division would answer on this matter. On questions as to how the question was also uploaded on the Lok Sabha website, she said, “I have asked the foreign secretary to get this [question] removed. He has told me that once it is on the Lok Sabha website, certain procedures and amendments are required before the correction can be done. I have not signed any paper with this question.”
Taking their cue, the ministry decided to own up to the mistake soon after. “We have noted that Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 980, answered on December 8, 2023, needs a technical correction in terms of reflecting Shri V. Muraleedharan as the minister of state replying to the parliament question. This is being suitably undertaken,” the MEA said in a statement.
However, the Congress remained unconvinced. MP K. Sudhakaran told The Wire, “The Congress has always stood with the Palestinian cause. This flip flop is not only a breach of parliamentary privilege, but also a violation of oath of office by the minister under Article 75 of the constitution. The BJP has always had an ambiguous stand in the case of Israel and Palestine. In an effort to seek clarity, the question was put up. Now the minister says she didn’t sign.”
Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi, too, raised some questions on X. “Asking questions that were submitted by someone else led to the expulsion of an MP yesterday. Today, a minister denied that a reply to a PQ [parliament question] was approved by her. Shouldn’t that be investigated too? Shouldn’t it lead to seeking accountability, however innocuous the response from MEA may be,” she said.
Israel has been nudging India to ban Hamas. Recently, ambassador Naor Gilon said that with Israel banning terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba, India, too, should also designate Hamas as a terror group.
When asked if India had indicated to Israel whether it was considering a ban on Hamas, Gilon said, “We did whatever was expected from our side. Now, it is for the Indian government to decide – if, where, how, how fast.”
Traditionally, India has taken an ambiguous stand with regard to Hamas, trying to keep positive relations with both the Arabs and Israel. It has taken refuge behind the UN by proscribing organisations that have officially been declared a terrorist organisation by the international body.
Besides, for designated UAPA courts to uphold a ban on Hamas domestically, India would have to share evidence of involvement of the organisation in terror activities within India. So far, there is little to move on.