Controversial Rajasthan bill to shield corrupt officials, muzzle media

Age Correspondent With Agency Inputs

India, All India

After huge protests, Rajasthan CM agrees to review; PIL challenge filed.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje (Photo: PTI)

Jaipur: Ignoring widespread criticism, the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan on Monday tabled in the Assembly a controversial bill that seeks to protect public servants and judges from prosecution and bar the media from reporting on allegations against them related to on-duty action without its sanction.

Within hours of the tabling of the bill, Ms Raje wilted under political pressure and decided at  a meeting with her ministers to refer the bill to a select committee. Sources said the government may not even press for passing the bill in the current session. The Opposition Congress hailed the late-night development as a moral victory.

“The reference to the committee is just the first victory. A complete victory will be achieved when the bill is scrapped altogether,” said Leader of the Opposition Rameshwar Dudi of the Congress.

Earlier, the tabling of the bill coincided with a PIL filed in the high court to challenge the gag order. It also led to protests by the Opposition Congress within and outside the House. Amid pandemonium, the Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill 2017 was introduced by home minister Gulabchand Kataria to replace an ordinance promulgated on September 7.

As Speaker Kailash Meghwal began reading a notification, Congress MLAs demanded the repeal of the ordinance, terming it “unconstitutional” and “undemocratic”, and a tool “to crush the voice of the media”, and walked out of the House.

BJP MLA and former law minister Ghanshaym Tiwari, who expressed opposition to the ordinance, walked out of the Assembly twice when he was not allowed by the Speaker to raise a point of order. Former industry minister Narpat Singh Rajvi of the BJP had also objected to the bill.

Earlier, state Congress chief Sachin Pilot and Mr Dudi led a protest march as the House proceedings got under way, They said the Congress opposed this “black law” and would force the government to take back the ordinance.

Mr Pilot, who was detained along with several other party leaders, alleged that the BJP government was trying to institutionalise corruption through the order. “This draconian ordinance is a huge setback to public scrutiny. We will oppose it inside and outside the Assembly,” he said.

The state government, while defending the bill, said the measure was required to put an end to what it called frivolous litigation against public servants.

Meanwhile, activist Bhagwat Gour filed a petition in the Jaipur bench of the Rajasthan high court challenging the ordinance which he called “arbitrary and mala fide”.

He said that the ordinance was violative of Article 14 (equality before the law), Article 19 (freedom of speech) and Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Constitution.

As per the amendment in CrPC proposed by the state government, no magistrate shall order an inquiry nor investigate a person who is or was a magistrate, judge or a public servant without the prior sanction of the authority.

The petitioner said taking away the power of a magistrate to order an inquiry under CrPC Section 156(3) was “violative of the basic structure of the Constitution”.

Apart from the PIL against the bill, the state government attracted a harsh comment from the Jodhpur bench of the high court over the controversial ordinance. “This is a nikammi sarkar (defunct government) and nikamme log (useless fellows). This is the height that the government is busy bringing ordinance to save these useless fellows. What would happen to welfare work?” remarked the division bench of Justices Govind Mathur and Vineet Mathur while hearing a separate PIL on drainage system for rainwater in Jodhpur city.

Earlier, the state home minister defended the bill in the Assembly. Mr Kataria said that around 36 per cent cases are filed through courts under Section 156 (3) and around 75 per cent of them are false.

“People keep putting out false allegations against public servants. Even if it is a completely baseless allegation, the harm is done,” he said.    

In New Delhi, Union law and justice minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also defended the Rajasthan bill and said it was aimed at preventing motivated complaints.

Opposing the curbs on the media, the Editors Guild of India urged the Rajasthan government to withdraw the ordinance, calling it “harmful”.

The ordinance is a “pernicious instrument” to harass the media, the guild said. The provisions of the ordinance bar the media from naming a public servant till the government allows the case to be investigated.

The ordinance has faced opposition within the ruling BJP also. Apart from Mr Tiwari,  former industry minister Narpat Singh Rajvi has also opposed the bill.

“This is against the principles of the party. We did not fight against the Emergency to have a BJP government bring such a law,” said Mr Tiwari.

Independent MLA Manikchand Surana, who was earlier in the BJP, criticised the bill saying without the consent of the President, no bill to amend a Central Act (CrPC) can be tabled in the Assembly.

“It is going to be an undeclared emergency in the state,” Mr Surana said.

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