The government against satyagrahas, then and now

Though Gandhi never called himself a Hindu nat...

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ERA SEZHIYAN IN THE HINDU

The events that marked the supreme authority of the British regime in India are now being blatantly followed by the United Progressive Alliance government. But time is running out.The term ‘satyagraha’ (satya is truth, and agraha is firmness) was coined by Gandhiji to designate his struggle of ‘passive resistance.’ He initiated it in South Africa during his agitations from 1894 onwards against the oppressive British regime there.

As president of the Congress in 1924, Gandhiji transformed the party into a fighting organisation, and launched several satyagraha agitations to involve people in constructive programmes. The Calcutta Session of the party (in December 1928) gave an ultimatum to the British government that unless Dominion status was given to India by December 31, 1929, the Congress would launch a Civil Disobedience Movement. When no favourable response was received, at midnight on December 31, 1929, the Indian National Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, or Purna Swaraj. The party’s Working Committee gave Gandhiji the responsibility to launch the first act of civil disobedience.

Salt satyagraha

Gandhiji chose to begin with a satyagraha against the Salt Tax imposed by the British. The Salt Act of 1882 gave the British the monopoly on the manufacture of, and collection of tax on, salt. Several leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress president at that time, had felt that there were more important issues to be taken up as a part of the demand for full independence. But Gandhiji felt that the salt tax was a richly symbolic choice since salt was something that was used by nearly everyone in India. He believed that the protest would dramatise the demand for Purna Swaraj in a way that would be meaningful to even the least Indian.

On March 2, 1930, Gandhji wrote to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, offering to stop the march if 11 demands were met, including a reduction in land revenue assessments, an end to the enormous exploitation of the people, and the misuse of public funds by the British. Gandhiji added: “If my letter makes no appeal to your heart, on the eleventh day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram as I can take, to disregard the provisions of the Salt Laws. As the Independence Movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil tax.”

The Viceroy’s reply simply expressed the opinion that Gandhiji was “contemplating a course of action which is clearly bound to involve violation of the law and danger to the public peace.” Gandhiji selected the first batch of 78 satyagrahis, all members of the Sabarmati Ashram. On March 6, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel set out to make arrangements in the villages and regions through which the Dandi March would pass. On March 7, Sardar Patel was arrested as he was about to address villagers at Kheda; he was sentenced for three months. There was speculation that Gandhiji and the satyagrahis too might be arrested.

On March 12, at 6.30 a.m., Gandhiji started off with his satyagrahis on the Dandi March. After covering 241 miles in 24 days, they reached Dandi on April 5. A large number of journalists from India and abroad had camped there. For them, Gandhiji wrote a short note: “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might — Dandi, M.K. Gandhi.” On the morning of April 12, Gandhiji raised a lump of salt in his hand and declared: “With this, I am shaking the foundation of the British Empire.” He then boiled it in sea water, producing salt illegally. Gandhiji’s satyagraha became a mass satyagraha throughout India. Then, the government resorted to repressive laws. Jawaharlal Nehru was arrested on April 14, and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment under the Salt Act. On April 28, C. Rajagopalachari was arrested, to be sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment after he and his satyagrahis entered the Coromandel coast at Vedaranyam.

While these leaders were being arrested, Gandhiji was going to other places near Dandi to defy the salt law. The climax of the campaign came when Gandhiji was arrested on May 4, 1930. He was resting at the Karadi Camp three miles from Dandi. At midnight, the District Magistrate, along with several police officers armed with pistols and 30 policemen bearing rifles, entered the room. Gandhiji asked about the charges under which he was being arrested. The Magistrate said it was under Regulation 28 of 1927 which allowed imprisonment without trial. At 1.20 a.m. the police put him in a lorry on the way to Yerwada Jail in Poona.

Gandhiji’s arrest and internment led to hartals and strikes across in India, and there were sympathetic demonstrations all over the world. On May 12, a second batch of satyagrahis led by Abbas Tyabji was arrested. On May 21, Sarojini Naidu and Manilal Gandhi were arrested; some 2,500 satyagrahis being led by them were beaten ruthlessly by 500 policemen commanded by British officers. In this action, four persons were killed; more than 300 persons were hospitalised with severe injuries. Still the satyagrahis observed absolute non-violence and discipline.

Reports on Gandhiji’s campaign during the Dandi March appeared each day in 1,350 newspapers across the world. Time magazine declared him Man of the Year, commenting on his march to the sea “to defy Britain’s salt tax as some New Englanders once defied the British tea tax.” The Press Ordinance promulgated by the Irwin regime caused 67 Indian newspapers and 55 printing presses to be shut down. Over 80,000 Indians were jailed without trial under the Salt Law.

The civil disobedience movement continued until early 1931. The rest is part of the political history of India — from the Gandhi-Irwin Pact leading to the Second Round Table Conference, to the Quit India Movement, and the emergence of independent India.

The Salt Satyagraha challenged the very existence of the British regime in India. Sir Charles Innes, who was a provincial Governor, wrote thus about the events of 1930 struggle: “England can hold India only by consent. We cannot rule it by sword.” It is true that the 1930 Salt Satyagraha was not successful with respect to many of its aims and demands. However, it was a historic turning point: thereafter every political move on the part of the Congress was to assert Purna Swaraj as the basic demand.

Hazare’s satyagraha

The events that marked the supreme authority of the British regime in India — and the stupid atrocities committed by it — are now being blatantly followed by the United Progressive Alliance government.

Anna Hazare’s movement has become a symbolic protest against the most corrupted government of free India. At least, Lord Irwin’s government arrested Gandhiji under a primitive Salt Act after the event. The high lords of the UPA government, living in the ivory towers of power and authority, sent the police to arrest a person who was planning to observe a peaceful agitation — without rhyme or reason. It was a mockery of governance to arrest a person in the morning and to order him to go out 12 hours later.

While Gandhiji invited openly the press in India and abroad to support his ‘battle for Right against Might,’ the UPA government, creating crisis after crisis, blames the media for every discord that is created.

Demand for ombudsman

During the Lok Sabha Debates on Demands for Grants of the Ministry of Law on April 3, 1963, Law Minister A.K. Sen said on the demand for an Ombudsman in India that it was a matter for the Prime Minister to decide. However, he observed: “In this country, my own view is that to make it effective, a constitutional provision should be made, as of the Election Commissioner or of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I think that if you really want to set up an effective organisation like Ombudsman with over-riding powers and spreading over the entire field of governmental activity, you will have to give him some constitutional position.”

The Lokpal Bill was introduced in May 1968. When it was considered on August 13, 1969 in the Lok Sabha, S.M. Joshi said: “Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru speaking at the AICC at Jaipur on 3 November 1963 said that the system of Ombudsman fascinated him; for the Ombudsman had overall authority to deal with charges even against the Prime Minister and confidence of all.”

As far as I know, that is the only remark on the subject recorded in Parliament Debates. None from the government side contradicted that statement.

While it is desirable to establish Lokpal as a constitutional authority, I feel that the government and the civil society team should come around to some sort of a bill. Hitherto the members of the public who have been supporting Anna Hazare have been non-violent and disciplined. In the event of a critical situation arising, things could turn ugly. After some time, amendments could be brought in to make the legisaltion more effective.

If UPA-II is certain of the support of Parliament and the people to its position on the issue, let it go to the electorate, or conduct a referendum on the specific issue of the Lokpal Bill.

(Era Sezhiyan is an eminent parliamentarian and author.)

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article2389518.ece

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Undermining Parliament won’t do

Indian Parliament Building Delhi India

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A TRIBUNE CHANDIGARH SPECIAL

Neither the Opposition nor the Government has the right to disrupt the session over any issue, says Subhash C. Kashyap

in recent weeks, we have witnessed so many scandals in high places to the tune of lakhs of crores of public money that we must bow our heads in shame. Disturbingly, the 2G spectrum allocation, the Commonwealth Games, the Adarsh Society and the Niira Radia tapes reveal only the tip of the iceberg. Much more is hidden below the surface.

Parliament, as the supreme representative institution of the people, ought to take serious note of the challenges to our polity posed by the giant scamsters. Members rising above party lines should have deliberated upon ways to quickly identify and punish the guilty and devise systemic reforms to prevent recurrence of such scams.

From day one, the winter session of Parliament has been rendered dysfunctional. The only business it transacted during three weeks was a sham and a disgrace. Supplementary Demands and Appropriation Bills for thousands of crores were passed without any debate by a voice vote amid din. There could be no better evidence of the low levels to which the MPs’ respect for Parliament and public money has descended. The basic issues of large-scale corruption have receded to the backstage and much of the focus is on the long logjam.

The Opposition members were united in demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) for examining the three big scams. They are firm on disrupting Parliament unless this was agreed to. The government is equally firm on its stand that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the appropriate forum for deliberating on financial accounts and the report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG). In any case, all matters could be discussed in Parliament. The government also offered a CBI probe under the Supreme Court’s supervision.

The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs says that the JPC demand is purely political and illogical. First, if the demand is political, its rejection by the government was equally so. Secondly, Parliament is primarily a political institution meant inter alia for debating political issues. ‘Political’ cannot mean unreasonable or illegitimate. Thirdly, there were compulsions of coalition politics. Some problems arose when for government formation in case of a hung Lok Sabha, a price had to be paid to coalition partners/ supporters, bargains had to be struck and the price demanded had to be paid in the form of creamy portfolios like Telecom.

In such a situation, corruption is inbuilt in government formation. It was known to the Prime Minister and others. It was understood and accepted as unavoidable in the best interests of power polities. Even former Telecom Minister A. Raja’s resignation became possible only after counter pressure and promise of support from a rival provincial satrap.

The Opposition felt that the JPC canvas could be vast while PAC probe would be limited in nature and the Ministers could not be summoned before it. As for the CBI inquiry under the Supreme Court, it was very legitimately wondered how the government could make such an offer or interfere with juridical functions and court’s discretion.

The Opposition asked what was so sinister about demanding a JPC probe. After all, during the NDA regime in 2001, a JPC was quickly conceded by the Prime Minister to probe the Stock Market Crash Scam and related issues. Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, P. Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh as also the Finance Secretary appeared before the JPC. A report was made and its recommendations were largely accepted.

The Opposition disowned responsibility for making Parliament dysfunctional. It asserted that it was the government’s job to make Parliament function. But, as a logical conclusion, it would mean the use of disciplinary powers of the Presiding Officers and the Houses and suspension of members obstructing the proceedings and committing breach of parliamentary privilege and contempt of the Houses.

All the efforts made by the troubleshooters and party managers at all-party luncheon meetings have failed to break the deadlock and evolve a compromise. This was a clear failure of political and floor management skills of the government. The Speaker’s last ditch effort, too, failed.

Clearly, both the government and the Opposition are equally responsible for the ugly impasse. There was an unnecessary, illegitimate and irrational tug of war in the name of the people. But the people are nowhere in the picture. As usual, on both sides, political considerations and calculations of gain and loss have the upper hand. Perhaps, there is an unsaid long-term political concern before the government and the Opposition. Both are eyeing the 2014 general elections. The Opposition would like to drag the matter on through the JPC device and the Congress feared a repeat of what happened to it after the JPC on Bofors.

The people are appalled and dismayed at the shameful levels and reach of corruption involving the UPA-II government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and advised by the all powerful National Advisory Council. But the Opposition has done precious little to explain to ‘we, the people’ why it insisted on disrupting the proceedings of both Houses. The government also has failed to convince the concerned citizens about the justification, if any, for its unrelenting opposition to conceding the near-unanimous Opposition demand. It is also feared that deliberate dilly dallying on the JPC demand would help one to fudge records and buy and manage evidence. As Parliament has been paralysed, some of the talking was being done through blogs or television channels. The people needed to be informed about parliamentary processes, relevance and respective merits of parliamentary committees. Friends from the media kept enquiring this writer about the difference between a JPC and PAC.

It would have been better to use Parliament to talk to the people and educate them through debates about the arguments of both sides. The Opposition leaders could place all the facts and arguments most forcefully and plead for the appointment of a Joint Committee of the two Houses. The government side could also justify its stand. The people could then form their opinion though in a parliamentary system while the Opposition has the right to have its say, the government, so long as it is in majority, has its way.

Parliament is the chief communication link between the government and the people. Close contact and an intimate rapport between the two is the quintessence of parliamentary democracy. Parliament belongs to the people and not to MPs or parties. People must have access to Parliament. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous disconnect between the two. Things get worse when both Houses do not function and are shut against the people.

If the Opposition was anxious to question the Prime Minister and nail his responsibility, the Lok Sabha was the more effective and legitimate forum than a JPC. However, in a JPC, proceedings are in camera. Interestingly, the nomenclature JPC finds no mention in any constitutional or legal provisions or in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the two Houses of Parliament. The term gained currency during and after the inquiry into the Bofors scandal in 1987.

The device of parliamentary committees is intended to assist the Houses of Parliament in the efficient discharge of their functions. There are two types of Parliamentary Committees in India: Standing Committees and Ad hoc Committees. Standing Committees are constituted by the House or the Speaker every year or from time to time and are permanent in nature. Ad hoc Committees are appointed for a specific purpose.

Standing Committees include the Financial Committees and Departmentally Related Committees. Ad hoc committees may be Select or Joint Committees or those constituted to report on specific matters. A committee which consists of members of both Houses is a Joint Committee. The Standing Financial Committee called the Public Accounts Committee is also a joint committee inasmuch as the Rajya Sabha MPs are also associated with it. All the Departmentally Related Standing Committees are Joint Committees.

Both Houses of Parliament have inherent powers to appoint special committees under special circumstances to examine and inquire into specific issues and report to the Houses. Apart from the Standing Committees, Ad hoc joint committees of both Houses have been constituted from time to time on various matters. Technically, these were JPCs. It is, therefore, not correct to say that the JPC on Bofors was the first JPC or that there have been only four JPCs so far. Also, it is incorrect to say that the four JPCs were total failures. A committee can only inquire and make recommendations. It is for Parliament to discuss them and for the government to accept them and take appropriate action.

After Bofors, the nomenclature JPC has in practice come to connote an ad hoc joint committee of both Houses formed for inquiring into a specific scandal of financial wrong doing. A distinctive feature of such committees is their investigatory role. Of the oft-cited four such investigative committees in the past, the first was in 1987 on the Bofors scandal. After crusading for it and blocking Parliament for long, the Opposition boycotted the JPC on the ground that it was packed by Congress members. Even though the Opposition boycotted the JPC on Bofors, its inquiry led to mass resignation of Opposition members and ultimately the change of the government. The Union Cabinet itself was split with V.P. Singh putting himself up as an anti-corruption Messiah.

The second JPC was formed in 1992 to investigate the Securities Stock Scam involving Harshad Mehta and other brokers. Parliament was largely paralysed for two weeks before the JPC was conceded. The third was set up in 2001 to investigate the Shares scam involving Ketan Parekh, banks and corporate Houses. From March 13, 2001, Parliament was paralysed for nine days after the Tehelka expose. In April, after another week of adjournments, the Opposition Congress demanded a JPC. On the issue of irregularities in defence purchases during the Kargil conflict, it again demanded a JPC. These demands were rejected. The political parties demand JPC when in the opposition and oppose it when in the government.

A joint committee may be appointed on a motion adopted by the two Houses and may contain the names of its members. It may also be appointed by the Speaker of Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha after mutual consultation. Members of some Standing Committees including the Public Accounts Committee are elected according to the system of proportional representation by means of single transferable vote. This may be so even in the case of some ad hoc committees. But even if the committees are constituted by the presiding officers, proportional representation of parties is kept in view and the numbers in committees represent the party position in the Houses, i.e. by and large the ruling party or parties remain in majority in the committees as well. In case of the PAC, by convention, the Chairman has been from the Opposition since 1967.

The Comptroller and Auditor-General of India is an independent audit agency. To the extent that the executive is accountable to Parliament in financial maters, the CAG works as the watchdog on behalf of Parliament. Parliament’s effective functioning depends largely on the CAG’s assistance who is considered its friend and guide.

In the present case, the CAG had done his job and his report was laid before the two Houses. It had unearthed a major scam and pointed out blatant and substantial irregularities causing a loss of Rs 1.76 lakh crore to the public exchequer. Without a public and transparent auction, the 2G spectrum licences were given away to companies with doubtful credentials in 2008 at throwaway prices by former Telecom Minister A. Raja. Two companies which had bought the licences for Rs 1500 and Rs 1600 crore, after a few weeks, sold their stakes for Rs 12,000 crore!

In parliamentary committees, the effort always is to function on non-party lines. Decisions are taken unanimously or by consensus but the rules provide for all questions at any sitting of a committee being taken “by a majority of votes of the members present and voting.” On crucial issues involving party susceptibilities, therefore, it would not be easy for the Opposition to have its way against the government. It may be, therefore, wrong for the Opposition to believe that they would be able to compel the presence of the Prime Minister or other Ministers before the JPC. The majority in the committee may overrule such suggestions. Also, under the rules, the question may be “referred to the Speaker whose decision shall be final.”

In the PAC, a minister is not called before it to give evidence or for consultation in connection with the examination of accounts. A minister may appear before it if the Chairman agrees. Also it can be so arranged between the Speaker, the Committee Chairman and the minister concerned that he appears on his own.

If the Opposition can be convinced that it should not appear to be stalling the proceedings of the House and the government realises that it need not be seen as avoiding inquiry, there may be a way out of the present impasse whereby the concerned ministers and even the Prime Minister may appear before the PAC. The committee can also go beyond the CAG report and take suo motu notice of allied issues. This would only require an initiative and a promise from the Prime Minister himself.

The Opposition had a golden opportunity to draw maximum political advantage by providing good leadership, clean citizen-friendly governance and inclusive politics. They could make corruption a major issue and launch a massive campaign against it through speeches in Parliament instead of disrupting it and sipping coffee in the Central Hall.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has asked the CBI counsel not to beat about the bush when illegality was prima facie evident. It has castigated the CBI for tardy investigation and asked why Mr A. Raja and then Telecom Secretary P.J. Thomas (currently the Chief Vigilance Commissioner) have not been questioned. It has also questioned the legitimacy of Mr Thomas’ appointment on the ground of pending charges against him and his controversial role as Telecom Secretary.

The saddest part of the current debate in the media and among the pro-establishment pseudo-liberal intellectuals is that there is no willingness to call a spade a spade and condemn wrong doing. Cheating by those in power is countered and defended by pointing fingers at similar cheating by the Opposition parties when they were in power. Party ‘A’ accuses Party ‘B’ of swindling public money and vice versa. The blame game continues while the losers are we, the aam admi.

The Opposition pressure, the Supreme Court’s observations and the public outcry against corruption are beginning to impact the government inasmuch as notices have at last been issued to companies asking them why their 2G spectrum licences should not be cancelled. If Mr Thomas doesn’t quit voluntarily, there may be a strong case for seeking annulment of his appointment as mala fide and ab initio illegal and void.

The ultimate question is whether the political class — the largest beneficiaries of corruption — has at last realised that enough is enough and the people won’t accept the sordid state of affairs anymore.

The writer, a noted constitutional expert, is a former Secretary-General, Lok Sabha

http://www.tribuneindia.com/2010/20101205/edit.htm#1