The last few sessions of Parliament witnessed many a Bill being bulldozed through both Houses, by resorting to dubious and unconstitutional means. Yet, even those Bills figured in the list of legislative business of Parliament with ample time given to MPs to prepare for the debate. The passing of the 124th Constitutional Amendment Bill stands out for the unique manner in which it was forced into being top-priority legislative business, riding roughshod over most parliamentary rules concerning time.
For one, the Bill had been in existence only 36 hours when it was introduced before the Lok Sabha, having been drafting on Sunday night. For another, nobody, knew on Tuesday morning that the Bill would be part of the Lok Sabha’s business for the day, and Rajya Sabha MPs were surprised to discover, at the end of what they believed was their last day of session, that they would be sitting yet another day. The only seeming explanation for this bizarre distortion of parliamentary process is that the Government had willed that the Bill would be passed in the Winter Session come what may, and the discretion allowed to the chairs of both Houses was fruitfully used to realize the government’s desires.
The 124th Amendment Bill was approved in a single sitting Cabinet meeting on Monday, 7 January, the morning after it was drafted, and supposedly held the key to the "dreams of crores of Indians". It permits special provisions as well as a maximum of 10 percent reservations to "economically weaker sections" of citizens who are not already protected under Articles 15 and 16 of the Indian constitution, in both private and public educational institutions as well as in jobs in the government.
Several details about this Bill, such as the eligibility criteria of a gross annual family income of less than 8 lakhs, and family ownership of residential flats or plots of land of a certain size or less were reported by the media on Monday. Parties had even issued whips to their MPs requiring that they be present and voting on the Amendment Bill. However, no draft of the Amendment Bill was accessible to the public as of Tuesday morning, when the Bill was to be taken up by the Lok Sabha. The Bill was also conspicuously absent on the Lok Sabha's Revised List of Business for that day.
The Lok Sabha rules of procedure state that a notice to oppose a Bill's introduction ought to be given by 10 am on the day on which introduction of the Bill is listed in the List of Business (rule 72). Needless to say, when the introduction of a Bill does not figure in the List of Business before the day begins, MPs have no window of opportunity to oppose the introduction of the Bill.
The first signs of the Bill appeared on the horizon when Minister for Social Justice introduced the Bill, in the middle of the House's discussion of the DNA Bill, a little past noon on Tuesday. Sashi Tharoor, who was opposing the Trade Union (Amendment) Bill, even remarked that a copy of the Constitutional amendment was being circulated then. At around the same time, a supplementary List of Business was uploaded on the Lok Sabha website listing the Amendment Bill not only for "introduction" but also for "consideration and passing" immediately thereafter.
It was then that the first copy of the Bill came into the public domain through a reporter:
— Shemin (@shemin_joy) January 8, 2019
The bill, which was published by the Lok Sabha website after it was introduced in the House, is a pithy 3-page draft that does not even define "economically weaker sections" leave alone stipulate eligibility conditions concerning annual family income or house/land ownership. The definition of the category of beneficiaries is left entirely to the discretion of the government of the day, that may willy nilly notify any stipulations it fancies.
At 5 pm that evening, the Bill that was just introduced only 4 hours ago was taken up for "consideration and passing". The intervening 4 hours were spent by MPs in session, thus leaving them no time to even read, leave alone analyse the Bill.
The Lok Sabha rules, however, make it compulsory that two days pass after the introduction of a Bill before it can be considered and passed (rule 74). The idea is to permit MPs the time to peruse the Bill and make an educated statement on the virtues and flaws of the Bill. Unfortunately, even this rule of the Lok Sabha permits the Speaker an overriding discretion, which was deployed to bulldoze the Bill's passage late last night without providing any reasons, on its last day of session.
On Wednesday, the Bill was listed in the Rajya Sabha's Supplementary List of Business, which specified in a footnote that the Bill be given priority, ahead of all other listed legislative business in the earlier published List of Business. Several MPs led by Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, objected to the last minute extension of the term without the Chair's notice or a consensus of the House, contrary to the rules of procedure. While every MP in both Houses made lip service to the unacceptable rush with which the Bill was made the business of both houses, no MPs opposed the Bill except AIMIM's Asadduddin Owaisi in the Lok Sabha and AIADMK's Navaneethakrishnan and DMK's Kanimozhi in the Rajya Sabha.
Even as Kanimozhi registered DMK's protest, the Deputy Chair cut her off asking that she "understand his problem". She had spoken for more time than allocated to her and there was a pressing need to pass the Bill before the end of day, he said. It only helped him that the opposition were in an unspoken consensus with the Government which claimed to be acting on "election promises" - after all, vote banks are a bigger concern to opposition parties than the Constitution of India or parliamentary procedure.
The Opposition's half-hearted albeit repeated calls to abide by parliamentary procedure in the Rajya Sabha were met with a statement by the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Vijay Goel, that no time be wasted on "technical issues". If parliamentary procedure can be done away with so easily by the minister entrusted with Parliamentary Affairs, why do we have them at all?
There are many costs to the single-minded agenda with which the House's time was manipulated by all parties seeking to extract political value for the upcoming elections. First, the Indian Constitution was amended in one fell swoop over a period of just forty eight hours. Second, crucial bills such as the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018 and the Aadhaar and Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2019 which were pending debate in the Rajya Sabha were sidestepped to make time for this Bill, even though they had been passed in the Lok Sabha before the Reservation Bill. Worst of all, the Bill does not define the category of beneficiaries of this reservation scheme - leaving us no way to understand what kind of social group will receive reservations under the proposed Articles 15(6) and 16(6).
The media reportage on the "8L annual family income" and other conditions indicates that the Government has individuals in mind, not social groups. No data was placed before the House to indicate what percentage of the Indian upper caste population falls within these eligibility criteria, how many jobs already exist that can be made available to the economically disadvantaged of the upper castes, or why creamy layer OBCs and upper castes are treated on par with each other under these criteria notwithstanding the caste disadvantage faced by members from OBC.
The last two days were yet another instance of a betrayal of the Constitution of India by the Government and the opposition parties who appear to be working hand in hand, indicating yet again that we the citizens are the only victims of our imploding democratic process. Our political parties have no bone in this fight.
The author is an advocate and doctoral fellow at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research. She teaches democracy and the Indian Constitution through experiential learning. She tweets at @Malawdy
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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2019 22:03:49 IST