Testing times for established norms

Ramming through major amendments and Bills without proper discussion points to a tearing hurry to change the country’s character

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 3rd Aug 2019   12:05 am Updated: 2nd Aug 2019   11:26 pm

With the Modi 2.0 government’s move to amend a number of established Acts, including Right to Information Act, 2005, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 (UAPA Bill), labour code, and enactment of new Acts like triple talaq, the apprehension of gradually changing the Constitution of India by the NDA government has again gained currency.

The hurried attempt to amend these Acts without giving sufficient time to the lawmakers and without sending these proposed amendments to the parliamentary standing committees has augmented this fear.

Testing times

RTI Act
The amendment to the RTI Act by diluting the position of the Central Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners is a blatant attack on transparency in governance. The amendment to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, seeks to provide rules and procedures to deal with terrorist and other unlawful activities that affect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India. Among the four changes it made, the most alarming is the power of the Central government, subject to certain procedural requirements and conditions, to designate an individual as a terrorist.

As per the existing UAP Act, the Central government can only designate organisations, and not individuals, as terrorists. Empowering the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to seize or attach property associated with terrorism when the said agency investigates the case without prior approval of the highest police authority of States is another cause for concern, which may be misused by the Central government.

Code on Wages Bill
Parliament has also passed the Code on Wages Bill, 2019, which is the first in the series of four labour codes that the Ministry of Labour and Employment is working on to rationalise labour laws and improve the ease of doing business. This Bill will enable the Centre to fix minimum statutory wage for the entire country. These Bills are loaded in favour of employers in the name of ‘ease of doing business’, while the employees and workers have lost several protections, including hours of work, which were defined in the legislations and now would be notified by the competent authority/government from time to time under clause 25 (1).

The Labour Code on Wages will even affect the wages of journalists defined in the Working Journalists Act (WJA) and the Wage Board constituted under the Act as the Code of Wages will repeal the WJA and Working Journalists (fixing rates of wages) Act, 1958. Journalist organisations have also criticised the Bill for not including electronic and web journalists in the definition of journalist thereby depriving them of any benefit from the present legislation on labour code.

Considering these legislative developments inside Parliament and outside deliberations of some of the leaders of the BJP, one may conclude that the ruling classes at the Centre are not comfortable with the provisions of the present Constitution of India. Laws related to Article 370 (Kashmir), Article 25 (Freedom of Religion), Article 30 (about minorities setting up educational institutions) and the word ‘Secular’ in the Preamble to mention a few, which are not in conformity with the ruling party’s rightist ideology, are under focus.

Continued Effort
Immediately on the next Republic Day after the NDA came to power in 2014, the Central government issued an advertisement with the Preamble of Constitution in which words Secular and Socialist were missing. Former Minister of State for Skill Development, Anant Kumar Hegde, said in December 2017 that the BJP was in power to change the Constitution. He also said: “I will be happy if someone identifies as Muslim, Christian, Brahmin, Lingayat or Hindu. But trouble will arise if they say they are secular.” After facing criticism, he apologised for his remark about changing the Constitution and about secularism.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath stated in November 2017 that the word secularism was the biggest lie in India. Maharashtra’s Women and Child Welfare Minister Pankaja Munde had said before the recebt Lok Sabha election that they have to enact new laws and make some changes to the Constitution and for this, they have to send a capable person to the Lok Sabha. Former Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from Bahraich, Savitri Bai Phule, who joined the Congress just before the Lok Sabha elections after resigning from the BJP, accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of attempting to change the Constitution.

Voices Get Louder
From Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to Congress leader Kapil Sibal — all have accused Modi and the BJP government of its propensity to change the Constitution on which they had taken the oath. Their voices were feeble in the last term as BJP’s electoral strength was not adequate for changing the Constitution. With greater numerical strength now, the voices have become louder and their actions more visible, though they are still short of a two-thirds majority in Parliament — a requirement for changing the Constitution.

The BJP-led NDA, which draws its ideology from ideologues of the RSS and other Hindu organisations, has always tried to place Manu code – Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu legal text, above the Constitution. The BJP-led NDA government that came to power in 1998 appointed Venkatachaliah Commission to review the Constitution that was probably the first open expression of uncomfortable feeling on the Constitution from the ruling dispensation. The NDA’s move of reviewing the Constitution was strongly opposed by the opposition and a large section of the civil society and as a result, the commission report was dumped.

Failure of the government in establishing rule of law has led to a situation where influential people like the Uttar Pradesh MLA, a prime accused in the Unnao rape case, daring to attempt to wipe out an entire family of the complainant rape victim. Deliberate attempts at subverting democratic institutions, reluctance of the government to combat mob lynching and attacks on minorities by far-right activists will give way to establishing a despotic regime in the world’s largest democracy.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam) 

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