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~By Prakash Bhandari

Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje had to pay a heavy price for issuing an ordinance in September last year; an order that sought shielding politicians and bureaucrats from legal actions by barring the courts from taking up complaints against ministers, judges and state government officials without government sanction.

This Bill, which was an attempt to gag the media, was rejected not only by the media, but the people and the BJP cadres including large number of party legislators. Vasundhara Raje government was misled by the bureaucracy that advised her to issue an ordinance on Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) in September last year when the Assembly session was only a month away.

The Ordinance, issued and notified under much secrecy, expectedly sparked off a controversy when the media took up the issue and the public opinion went against the BJP government. The Ordinance provided for a jail term of two…

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~By Prakash Bhandari

Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje had to pay a heavy price for issuing an ordinance in September last year; an order that sought shielding politicians and bureaucrats from legal actions by barring the courts from taking up complaints against ministers, judges and state government officials without government sanction.

This Bill, which was an attempt to gag the media, was rejected not only by the media, but the people and the BJP cadres including large number of party legislators. Vasundhara Raje government was misled by the bureaucracy that advised her to issue an ordinance on Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) in September last year when the Assembly session was only a month away.

The Ordinance, issued and notified under much secrecy, expectedly sparked off a controversy when the media took up the issue and the public opinion went against the BJP government. The Ordinance provided for a jail term of two years for any violation.

The Bill was tabled in the Vidhan Sabha and it was later referred to the select committee following the opposition it met from all quarters. The Bill, which replaced the Ordinance, was finally withdrawn when the select committee did not give its report under the stipulated time. The Vasundhara Raje government realized its mistake after the reverses it suffered in the by-elections for two Lok Sabha and one Vidhan Sabha seat. The Bill was introduced in the Vidhan Sabha on October 23 last year to replace the Ordinance issued on September 6, 2017. The Ordinance was questioned in the High Court also and the BJP government had to face the wrath of the High Court also.

“The Vasundhara Raje government was misled by the bureaucrats and the state government invited the displeasure of the people because of its stubborn attitude in not shelving the Bill immediately after the Ordinance lapsed. The BJP government had no satisfactory answer for sending the Bill to the select committee and where was the need for such great hurry in promulgating an Ordinance when the Vidhan Sabha was to meet after a month. This Bill if passed would have become a Draconian law which shielded not only the  politicians and the bureaucrats but also the judiciary,”  said Sachin Pilot, the Pradesh Congress President.

The Ordinance was opposed by the opposition, lawyers, civil rights activists and the media. The High Court also issued a notice to the Centre and the state government over the “immunity” Ordinance that was to check misuse of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) section 156 (3) which deals with a police officer’s power to investigate a cognizable case.

The Bill also proposed to bar the media from disclosing the identity of an accused without approval of the state government. This was vehemently opposed by the media. Rajasthan’s leading newspaper Rajasthan Patrika described the Ordinance as “Kala Kanoon” and decided not to publish the name of the Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and her photograph till the Bill was withdrawn.

“We at Rajasthan Patrika opposed the Bill as it was not only against the freedom of press but violated the basic provisions of the Constitution and was against the basic norms of democracy. This was worse than the Emergency that we witnessed. We tried to build public opinion against the Bill and found to our great surprise that the members of the select committee were also not in favour of the Bill and they did not take up the matter for any discussion for five months. As the select committee did not submit its opinion for five months, it was given an extension of another six months. Then results of the three bye-elections went against the BJP” said Gulab Kothari, Editor-in-Chief of Rajasthan Patrika.

Did bureaucrats mislead Raje?

Sources say Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje was ill-advised by former Chief secretary CS Rajan, former additional Chief Secretary R K Verma and her Principal Secretary Tanmay Kumar on the Bill. Both Rajan and Verma were given plush assignments by the BJP government following their retirement and the three officers were blamed for authoring the Bill that provided  immunity to the public servants, serving and  former judges and magistrates from being investigated without the state government’s approval.

“The proposed Bill provided for seeking the state government’s approval for even registering a case and prosecution against the civil servants. The state government was given the power to give its replyin 180 days  whether it was giving approval for the prosecution of the erring officials or not. It was entirely at the discretion of the state government whether it was a fit case of lodging a complaint with the police and then prosecuting the erring officials. The courts were barred from taking cognizance and issuing injunctions against any such pleas… The media was barred from publishing, telecasting or broadcasting the name of the erring officials till the prosecution approval was granted by the government. Any violation by the media provided for two years of imprisonment.  Thus seeking the approval of the government would have given the erring officials an opportunity to destroy all evidences and this would have led to jeopardizing the normal course of laws leading to much more corruption. The state government thus could save any erring or corrupt officials and this would have led to more corruption.” said Girdhari Singh Bapna, a former advocate general.

A former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Ashok Kumar Mathur said there was no reason why an Amendment of Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) was sought by the government. “This amendment once passed would have given immunity to corrupt officials. The Bill lacked in clarity and was direction less,” said Mathur.

The state government insists that this Ordinance was brought not to save the corrupt officials, but to provide security to the honest officials.

“There is a provision to protect the honest officials in the existing Criminal Laws as it is mandatory to seek the approval of the state government against an official for prosecution. No prosecution can be granted against a government official without seeking the approval of the state government. Any Amendment in the existing Act would have led to more corruption and there was no need for seeking any Amendment” said Vinod Shankar Dave, a retired High Court judge.

Media outraged

The Vasundhara Raje government’s popularity plunged after the Ordinance was promulgated and the opposition of media added fuel to the fire and in the common man’s perspective the Ordinance was perceived as arming the corrupt officials and encourage them to become more corrupt.

“No law in a democratic set up can be accepted by the people if it is aimed at depriving them of their rights. The Ordinance did not get the people’s approval largely because it was against the society and was perceived as a measure to legalise corruption. The state government’s plea that the amendments sought through the Bill was to save the officialdom from frivolous cases. This argument was not accepted by the people and in the first opportunity the people voted against the ruling party in the by-elections. The wisdom dawned on the state government rather late… much goodwill was lost. Though the Bill has been withdrawn, it will remain an issue in the Vidhan Sabha election due towards the end of this year” said Laxmi Prasad Pant, the state Editor of Dainik Bhaskar.

With  just 10 months to go for the Vidhan Sabha election, the Congress is upbeat. The Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government is being seen as a government that was given a massive mandate but did not deliver. Instead, the Raje government earned the tag of a “corrupt regime”. The countdown has now begun against the BJP government.

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