The visible part of a vibrant legislature is members of Parliament (MPs) passionately debating critical national issues that shape the country. But a secretariat independent of the government, working tirelessly in the background supporting legislative functioning, is the backbone of Parliament. Two officers of Parliament, Maheshwar Nath Kaul and Sham Lal Shakdher devoted themselves to creating an efficient parliamentary administration for the national legislature of independent India.
Before Independence, Vithalbhai Patel, the first president of the Central Assembly, ensured the legislature’s secretariat was responsible to its presiding officer, not the government. It was called the Legislative Assembly Department, and it was this department Kaul joined in 1937. Rising through the ranks, Kaul became secretary to the constituent assembly.
It was here that he helped in moulding provisions relating to Parliament in the constitution. Then, he was at the helm of administration in the provisional Parliament and finally took charge of the Lok Sabha secretariat. Shakdher’s journey to the Lok Sabha administration started in the newly created Department of Parliamentary Affairs. He was its first secretary in 1949. After that, he followed his mentor Kaul to Parliament as an officer on special duty and finally became his deputy in the Lok Sabha secretariat. He later succeeded Kaul as the Lok Sabha secretary.
Our constitution empowers the two houses of Parliament to make their own rules of procedure and have separate secretarial staff. Kaul and Shakdher put together a foundation of sound procedures and a responsive secretariat to implement them. For example, in 1952, in the first Lok Sabha of independent India, the rules provided that the House would start functioning at 10.45am. The timing was subject to the Speaker’s instruction. It also provided that MPs give their questions 10 days in advance to enable ministers to answer them. Implementing these two simple rules, among many others, required a coordinated organisational effort by the Lok Sabha secretariat.
First, then-Speaker G V Mavalankar directed that the House would start functioning at 8.15am. It meant a group of secretariat personnel would have to arrive hours before to open, clean and ready the precincts of Parliament for the day. Another group would have to prepare the day’s schedule, answers to questions, and parliamentary papers. They would also make copies of each document for every MP.
Watch and ward staff would assist MPs and direct the public to galleries to watch the House proceedings. When the proceedings would start, a record of every word said in the legislative chamber would be kept and then published. Parallelly, secretariat personnel would check that the questions submitted by MPs for the following days comply with the rules of procedure. They would then send them to the respective ministries for their responses and collate their answers. Then the process would start all over again for the next day.
Occasionally, there were hiccups. On June 5, 1952, Lok Sabha MPs were in for a surprise when they reached Parliament. They saw the flag of Great Britain flying on the building instead of the Indian tricolour. Agitated MPs demanded answers from the government. A few days later, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would clarify in the House that it had occurred due to the improper understanding of instructions.
Kaul and Shakdher ensured procedural and operational aspects of parliamentary functioning worked seamlessly. With the support of colleagues, they designed rules not only for the conduct of business in the legislative chamber but also in its committees. They also supported state assemblies and Parliaments of other countries on constitutional and procedural matters of legislatures.
During his tenure, Kaul started Parliament’s academic journal. In its inaugural issue, he laid down the need for a journal as a tool for disseminating parliamentary information and as a vehicle for sharing insights on the institution’s functioning. Writing in the same issue, Shakdher described an ideal parliamentary official as objective, nonpartisan, patient and committed to the country’s service.
On retiring, the Lok Sabha speaker appointed both Kaul and Shakdher as honorary officers of the House. The president nominated Kaul to Rajya Sabha as an MP, and Shakdher became the chief election commissioner. Their enduring legacy is the seminal book, ‘Practice and Procedure in Parliament’. Popularly referred to as Kaul and Shakdher, it is the first port of call for everyone interested in the functioning of our legislatures. The book, updated by the Parliament secretariat, occupies a prominent place in every legislative chamber in the country.
Chakshu Roy, Head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research