Media is not merely the 4th pillar of democracy, but also a watchdog towards the working of the State. However, the politicization of the media, sensationalization of news due to the TRP race, numerous elections leading to the media becoming involved continuously in elections mode lead to the neglect of some core issues which are important for public purposes, information dissemination, discussion and debate.
The article covers some important decisions made by the Supreme Court of India in 2017 that were not given the coverage they deserved.
In the first week of January, a seven-judge Supreme Court bench ruled that “religion, race, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process”. This order was violated on very next day when Former UP Chief Minister Mayawati declared contestants on basis of caste. Also, since Supreme Court has called Hinduism “a way of life” in 1995 judgement, the order was debatable.
Then, in January a seven-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in Krishna Kumar Singh vs. the State of Bihar, has held that the failure to place an ordinance before the legislature constitutes an abuse of power and a fraud on the Constitution. This was because Bihar government had re-promulgated a 1989 ordinance, for seven successive times, without even once tabling it in the State Assembly. The judgement should have been widely hailed to ensure democratic institutions function desirably.
Thereafter, in February, the Budget presented several political reforms like the maximum amount of cash donation that a political party can receive, was reduced from ₹20,000 to ₹2,000 from one person. Further, an amendment was proposed to the Reserve Bank of India Act to enable the issuance of electoral bonds which could be purchased only by digital modes of payment. The final details of this bond are still awaited. Moreover, every political party was mandated to file its return within the time prescribed in accordance with the provision of the Income-tax Act to ensure tax-free status.
Additionally, protests occurred in Nagaland where women were demanding 33% constitutional reservation for Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) in Nagaland, as available in rest of the nation &abd mandated to be implemented by Gauhati High Court. The debate was centred around traditional rights of Nagas against women empowerment
Furthermore, a CBI report submitted to the Supreme Court said that there are more than 31 lakh NGOs existing in India, but only 8% – 10% of those file annual financial statement. Hence, the Supreme Court demanded a clear data bank about existing NGOs from the Centre. It is hard to debate that, amidst growing foreign links in NGOs, there is a need to provide an institutional and legal framework to NGOs.
Then, the Supreme Court ordered the installation of CCTV cameras in courtrooms and its premises, without audio recording, in at least in two districts of all states and union territories within three months. This is a major step considering the large-scale opacity in functions of Judiciary.
Thereafter, the Election Commission (EC) said that predictions by astrologers, Tarot readers and Political analysts on election results cannot be published or broadcast by the media. This is a necessary reform to ensure free & fair elections in India.
Further, the Lok Sabha passed a constitutional amendment which renames NCBC as “National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes” in the Constitution. An accompanying bill, “The National Commission for Backward Classes Bill 2017”, was also passed to repeal the 1993 law. This is a major reform for the upliftment of OBCs, as NCeBC was granted Constitutional status (Article 338B).
Also, the law stipulates only one central list for OBC, same as that for SC and ST. There would be no parallel existence of central and state OBC lists. This would reduce the State governments power to grant OBC inclusion as per vote bank politics and the parliament will decide on the inclusion/exclusion under Article 342A. He may do this in consultation with the Governor of the concerned state.
Moreover, the election commission using Article 324 cancelled the by-election to the RK Nagar constituency in Chennai, which fell vacant after the death of CM Jayalalitha. It was cancelled as large-scale bribing of voters to the tune of ₹89 crores which made it impossible to conduct free and fair elections.
Likewise, the Election Commission (EC) disqualified Madhya Pradesh Minister Narottam Mishra, for three years, for filing wrong accounts of election expenditure. The membership has been revoked under section 10A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. The petition seeking Mishra’s disqualification was filed in 2009, alleging that the he had not included expenses incurred by him on ‘paid news’ while filing his expenditure statement before EC after the 2008 poll.
Additionally, the Karnataka assembly Speaker ordered the imprisonment of two journalists for a year based on recommendations of its privilege committees. Earlier in 2003, the Tamil Nadu assembly Speaker directed the arrest of five journalists for publishing articles that were critical of the AIADMK government. This was a debatable decision as privileges vs freedom of speech & expression were at odds with each other.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court, in a judgement, has said that the right to access Internet comes under fundamental right of expression and cannot be curtailed at any cost. The judgement was passed during a hearing of a PIL filed by Sabu Mathew George against search engines (Yahoo, Google and Microsoft) for strict adherence to section 22 of the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) (PCPNDT) Act of 1994.
The court said that the Right of Internet Access is permissible, until and unless it doesn’t “encroaches into the boundary of illegality”. This judgement could have large-scale ramifications and would help in making the Internet as part of Fundamental Rights in future.
Then, ‘Integrated Case Management Information System’ (ICMIS) was introduced in the apex court for digital filing. Its functions include the option of e-filing cases, checking listing dates, case status, online service of notice/summons, office reports and overall tracking of progress of a case filed with the apex court registry and is a big shot in the arm for Digital India initiative and solving three crore cases in the judiciary.
Moreover, the debate begun between Puducherry Lieutenant Governor and Cheif Minister overpowers designated to the two authorities, similar to Delhi power struggle. The CM has insisted that the Lt. governor should work according to the advice of the council of ministers and she should inform prior to visiting any constituency. However, the Lt. Governor said that she was the “real administrator” and all files had to be sent for her approval as she had the powers over administrative matters. The issue needed a greater debate over conflicts between Article 239, 239A, 239AA, Union Territories Act, 1963, Rules of Business of the Government of Puducherry.
Thereafter, the Union Government has merged the Ministry Of Urban Development (MoUD) and the Ministry Of Housing And Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA), and now it will be called as the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. This move goes along with the objective of “Minimum Government, Maximum Government” but more such moves are needed in this regard.
Additionally, the Union cabinet has approved a proposal to change the electoral laws to allow NRIs to vote in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections through a proxy. Overseas electors will have to appoint a nominee afresh for each election — one person can act as a proxy for only one overseas voter. This is unlike the armed forces who can nominate their relatives as a permanent proxy to vote on their behalf. This is another step which would facilitate greater involvement of Indian citizens living abroad and help in getting them connected to their national identity.
Further, a great debate which now needs to usher is on Article 35A of Indian Constitution, after a recent petition in Apex Court against the constitutionality of the article.
Article 35A was incorporated into the Constitution in 1954 by a Presidential order issued under Article 370 (1) (d) of the Constitution. Article 35A of the constitution empowers the J&K legislature to define state’s “permanent residents” and their special rights and privileges without attracting a challenge on grounds of violating the Right to Equality of people from other States or any other right under the Constitution.
For example, Article 35A protects certain provisions of the J&K Constitution which denies property rights to native women who marry from outside the State. The article is now debatable as it was not added to the Constitution, through amendment under Article 368, thus bypassing the parliamentary route of lawmaking. It is contended that it is discriminatory against non-residents as far as government jobs and real estate purchases are concerned. Thus, violating fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19 and 21. The article needs greater public debate and will be examined by Apex Court in future.
Then, a big ticket reform by Centre namely Real Estate (Development and Regulation) Act, 2016 that was passed by the parliament in March 2016, which came into effect fully from May 2017. The move is expected to regulate largely hitherto unregulated real estate sector to usher in transparency and systemization. What remains to be seen is how long it takes to ensure all states adhere to it.