When Gandhi Examined a Bill
Attempts to bypass parliamentary scrutiny have set a dangerous precedent
The stubborn refusal of the NDA Government in the Rajya Sabha to send the RTI Amendment Bill and many other legislations such as the Unlawful Activities Amendment Bill to Select Committees of the House is a tragic affirmation that legislative scrutiny and examination of bills is not acceptable to the present Union government.
For an executive that proclaims its belief in “minimum government and maximum governance” such a rigid stance against subjecting its legislative proposals to critical and detailed study and analysis is a negation of the idea that improved scrutiny leads to better governance.
The subversion of legislative scrutiny of the government’s work, or of its legislative proposals, constitutes subversion of Parliament itself. As President of India the late K.R.Narayanan called Parliament “the head and front of our body politic” which represents the supreme will of the people.
It is strange that the Modi government is blocking legislative scrutiny in 21st century India, when we take pride in the depth and content of our democracy and cite its global significance as a framework for governance, social transformation and nation building.
A century ago when India was under British rule and Mahatma Gandhi spearheaded his first satyagraha in Champaran in 1917 by breaking colonial law, it resulted in the framing of a law, the Champaran Agrarian Act, which put an end to the British policy of allowing colonial planters to force farmers to plant indigo on part of their fertile lands.
It is instructive to note that when the Act was still a Bill the colonial government, on the demand of the members of the Bihar–Orissa Legislative Assembly, referred it to a Select Committee of the House for scrutiny. The Revenue Secretary of the Bihar–Orissa Province also forwarded a copy of the bill to each of the stakeholders, and one copy was sent to Mahatma Gandhi on December 6, 1917, for him to give his detailed remarks.
So, Mahatma Gandhi’s first satyagraha had a parliamentary dimension to it, and his precious suggestions for modifying the bill were accepted by the colonial government.
On the occasion of the Champaran Satyagraha centenary celebrations, life-size portraits of the incumbent Prime Minister were placed alongside Mahatma Gandhi’s, and it was driven home with much clamour and brass that the Government of India remained wedded to the ideals of the Champaran Satyagraha.
Two years later, with Prime Minister Modi firmly ensconced in his seat, his government is completely unmindful of the Champaran spirit and aggressively resists parliamentary scrutiny of the slew of legislations it has introduced in the short span of its second term.
If the British colonial government was responsive to the demand of MLAs to refer the Champaran Agrarian Bill to a Select Committee of the House, and it even willingly requested Mahatma Gandhi, who started the Champaran Satyagraha, to scrutinise it and give his remarks, what is holding back a democratically elected Union government of independent India from heeding a similar demand from members of the Rajya Sabha belonging to some opposition parties to send the Bills to Select Committees of the House?
It is the bounden duty of the democratically elected Government of India to uphold parliamentary traditions and conventions, and the spirit of the Constitution, which had together established the healthy practice of referring bills to the department-related Parliamentary Standing Committees. These were set up as Subject Committees of Parliament by Speaker of the Lok Sabha the late Shri Rabi Ray in 1989, and later in 1995 were expanded to enable a full-fledged, rigorous examination of the policies and programmes of the government of the day, as also the bills drafted by its numerous departments.
It is indeed tragic that these healthy democratic practices are being given a go by the present Union government, ostensibly to pass the legislation “quickly” without adequate debate, discussion or scrutiny.
It has set a very dangerous precedent.
Such attempts to bypass parliamentary scrutiny deprive our legislations of vital bipartisan input which makes them legally and substantively tenable and acceptable, and truly representative. The Parliamentary Standing Committees act on a bipartisan basis to provide a much-needed and useful forum to debate, discuss and fine-tune the contents of legislation.
Unfortunately, even in the last Lok Sabha attempts were made by both the government and the Speaker to interfere in these committees’ functioning. For instance, when the Committee on External Affairs under the Chairmanship of Shashi Tharoor was scheduled to meet at 3 PM on a particular day during the Budget session to adopt a report on Doklam issue, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan wrote a letter to Tharoor directing him to cancel the meeting as it was preventing some of the committee members from participating in the proceedings of the House.
It was an unprecedented direction from the Speaker to the Chairman of a Committee.
Tharoor, while abiding by the Speaker’s directions, replied citing another direction of the Speaker that no meeting of a Committee should be cancelled at the last moment. All such correspondence between Tharoor and Speaker Mahajan was covered in the media and it showed the functioning of Parliament and its committees in poor light.
It is common sense and a well-proven fact that greater scrutiny and examination of legislation takes forward the cause of good governance. Therefore, the refusal of the Union government to subject its legislative proposals to parliamentary scrutiny is a refusal to promote the cause of good governance.
When the British government referred the Champaran Agrarian Bill of 1917 to Mahatma Gandhi for closer analysis he examined it and pointed out certain flaws. The government accepted his suggestions, and the modified legislation eventually put a stop to the barbaric practice of forcing farmers to plant indigo in order to serve the interests of colonial planters, who in our time are the corporates.
Why is Modi’s second government not willing to subject its bills to parliamentary scrutiny? Are we living in a new India which is worse than British rule? Hope the answer is no.
S.N.Sahu served as Press Secretary to President of India K.R.Narayanan.