Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani’s aggression on the issue of Dalit scholar Rohith Vermula’s suicide and the arrest of JNU students on sedition charges was countered in equal measure in the Upper House on Thursday when the Opposition forced an adjournment in the midst of her reply to the debate.

The adjournment followed strident objection, particularly from the Congress Deputy Leader in the House Anand Sharma, to Irani quoting a pamphlet from JNU in which goddess Durga was described as a “sex worker”. The Minister was quoting the pamphlet to illustrate the point that in the name of freedom of speech, students in JNU were indulging in nefarious activities.

“May my God forgive me for reading this,” she began, dramatically, “It (pamphlet in JNU) says that Durga Puja is a controversial, racial festival, where a fair-skinned, beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasur. Mahishasur, a brave, self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga who enticed him into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning,” the minister quoted.

While she was reading the pamphlet, the Congress demanded that it be authenticated. “What is going on here? There are objectionable comments on the Prophet, the Christ on gods, are they all going to be read out aloud here?” asked Sharma. The Treasury Benches did not yield, with Parliamentary Affairs Ministers M Venkaiah Naidu and his deputy Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, and Minister for Petroleum Dharmendra Kumar loudly supporting the Minister.

Irani was heard saying, “You find this objectionable? What was Rahul Gandhi’s political need when he went to support people who wrote this pamphlet?” she asked.

The debate earlier saw a face-off between stalwart speakers Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) and the Leader of the House Arun Jaitley, who elicited laughter while he quipped that, “the tragedy of Bengal is that it has three Congress parties – the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Marxist Congress”. Jaitley intervened in the debate – once while defending his party MP Bhupendra Yadav who was being heckled by the Opposition, and again when he asserted that “hate speech cannot be free speech”. “JNU is not a sovereign country that the police cannot enter. If Indian Penal Code is being violated, the police are within their rights to enter the campus,” said Jaitley, while defending government action. Directing a barb at the Left parties, Jaitley said, “Just because West Bengal elections are round the corner, it shouldn’t mean that the police cannot enter a campus where anti-national slogans are being shouted.”

‘Why jab your finger at all?’

But while the Finance Minister sparred easily with his opponents, the HRD Minister’s “attitude” was questioned by many MPs. “You have a habit of jabbing your finger at everyone. Why do you do that? Yesterday, you exhibited the same behaviour towards Ms Mayawati. She is four times Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, a senior leader, how do you do that?” asked KC Tyagi of the Janata Dal (United), who said he was willing to debate why he referred to the HRD Minister as “Manusmriti Irani”. “I meant no disrespect. I am referring to an ideology, a set of laws which the Sangh Parivar follows,” said he.

The debate was initiated by Sitaram Yechury who recalled a reference to the communists as “witches” by the BJP MPs. Yechury used the analogy to argue metaphorically that the BJP would lose if they put the State’s might against students. “If you are comparing us with the witches, then listen to this song, ‘double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble’. And what does he say that is being produced? ‘For a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble’. This is the song of the witches. Yes we are witches; we forewarn. Like in Macbeth, the witches forewarn. Macbeth can be the king, but the lion of kings will come from Banquo. You may be the king today, the lion of kings in India will come from another Banquo. Not from you,” he said.

Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad cited a series of letters that were dispatched by the HRD Ministry to the Hyderabad Central University at the instance of Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya who branded Vemula and other students as “anti-national”. “His is not suicide. It is institutional murder,” Azad charged.