The government came up with forty amendments to central statutes as part of the Finance Bill, 2017. Nothing unusual, you might say, except that some of these amendments affected certain basic rights of the individual. By presenting these amendments in a Money Bill, the government managed to push them through without much debate in the Lok Sabha, where it enjoys a comfortable majority, and bypass the Rajya Sabha (where it is in a minority) altogether. This stratagem is becoming popular with the present government. They used it in 2016 to push through the Aadhaar Bill with a number of provisions that sought to virtually make obtaining an Aadhaar number mandatory for the citizen. This, despite litigation pending in the Supreme Court on what could be the scope of Aadhaar and the Supreme Court’s repeated directions to the government that it (the Supreme Court) would be the final arbiter on what the Aadhaar scheme could cover. Now, in one stroke, the government has gone beyond the provisions of even its own Aadhaar legislation to compel the honest taxpayer to register for Aadhaar. Come July 1, 2017 and the Kafkaesque situation could well arise where, after paying her income tax for the financial year 2016-17, the taxpayer finds that her income tax PAN has been invalidated and she cannot file her tax return, rendering her liable for financial penalties and incarceration.
The Finance Bill 2017 has also incorporated other amendments which merited taking the considered advice of the House of Elders, the Rajya Sabha. Certain tribunals have been abolished, their functions being taken over by other tribunals, without any clear rationale being spelt out. Not only that, the central government has armed itself with extensive rule-making powers to determine inter alia the qualifications, manner of appointment and removal of tribunal members and their emoluments. Given that the government is itself a litigant in a number of cases coming up before these tribunals, public confidence in the impartiality of these tribunals is likely to be severely shaken. Existing financial limits on contributions by companies to political parties have been removed and there is no need to disclose the party to which contributions are being made. Draconian powers of search and seizure have been given to officials of the income tax department: welcome back, inspector raj!
If these facets of unilateral exercise of executive power, unchecked by legislative oversight, were confined to just the Finance Bill, one could have ascribed it to overzealousness of the Finance Minister and his mandarins. Alas, the unbridled exercise of power has contaminated many other areas of government and society. Don’t like books that run contrary to your worldview? Just drag the publishers to court and let them stew in their own juice till they capitulate (Dina Nath Batra vs. Penguin/Wendy Doniger). Take offence at comments about a historical figure in a book? No problems, go ransack the venerable institution that worked with the author and destroy priceless, age-old artefacts and manuscripts, as goons of a ruling political party in Maharashtra did in 2004 (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune). The availability of alternative methods of civilised expression is apparently foreign to most citizens of the world’s largest democracy.
Mahatma Gandhi observed in 1947 “In India, no law can be made to ban cow-slaughter…It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.” Like many of Gandhi’s sage views, this one too has been consigned to the dustbin, with states vying with one another to ban the sale of beef. In 2017, one state, Gujarat, has legislated to punish cow-slaughter with imprisonment for life. Not to be outdone, the Chief Minister (CM) of Chhattisgarh has declared his intention to hang those guilty of cow-slaughter. A non-binding Directive Principle of state policy has been converted into laws that infringe the right to liberty of the citizen (and even the right to life, if the honourable Chhattisgarh CM were to have his way). Meanwhile, summary justice (or, rather, injustice) is meted out by vigilante groups to those suspected of involvement in alleged cow-slaughter.
The newly-installed theocrat CM of Uttar Pradesh has trained his sights on Romeos through his anti-Romeo squads (William Shakespeare is turning in his grave, four hundred years after his death, at the ignominy being heaped on one of his most romantic characters). I shudder at the unlimited latitude given to the police force of Uttar Pradesh, not known, even at the best of times, to exercise moderation in its interpretation and implementation of the law. Dating in UP will soon be a dated concept, with no Juliet worth her salt daring to be seen publicly with, you guessed it, a Romeo.
Actually, Juliets in India are having a tough time even completing their education. School and college managements from Varanasi to Vellore have decided that information will enter the craniums of their female students only if they are suitably attired (suitability being decided by the management). Not only that, women students must keep their distance from male students (apparently to keep hormonal outbursts at bay), eschew library work after 6 PM and forego the privileges of wifi (to keep corrupting internet influences away).
And then, to top it all, we have that abomination called the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It was bad enough when the CBFC puritans arbitrarily decided what was viewable only by adults. But now we have situations where certification is refused altogether for “lady-oriented” films. The latest news is that a film dealing with the demonetization episode is being referred by the CBFC Kolkata office to Delhi, so apparently terrified is the local officer of taking a decision on merits.
So, seventy years after India’s tryst with destiny, the Aadhaar-enabled, celibate, vegetarian, male Indian enters a Brave New World where he apes Gandhi’s three monkeys – “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” One does not necessarily dispute every decision taken by the government of the day. It is only that in a country with multiple sub-nationalities, religions, languages and traditions, a culture of debate and discussion ensures wide acceptability of laws and regulations, so essential for a functioning democracy. Jawaharlal Nehru, that inbred democrat, whose name is anathema to many of those in power today, wrote fortnightly letters to Chief Ministers uninterruptedly for over sixteen years from late 1947 to the end of 1963. Despite enjoying an unrivalled political status, Nehru was keen to justify his policies and explain their rationale and the motivations underlying them. Even in today’s rather vitiated political atmosphere, it would be statesmanlike for leaders to explain their actions to others, especially those opposed to their policies, and seek a broad consensus on the way forward. We would hardly want a scenario where people, on whom decisions have been thrust, echo the words of the disillusioned poet, penned by the inimitable Sahir Ludhianvi, in the film Pyaasa:
तुम्हारी है तुम ही संभालो यह दुनिया
यह दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है