The current session of the newly-elected Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha has brought about serious and consequential legislation into law, and if they are any indication of the future of the democracy we call home, it is indeed alarming.
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 seeks to extend the existing law’s ambit from organisations to even cover individuals who indulge in terrorist activities- a move very much in line with international law. However, the power entrusted to the central government is in direct contradiction to the division of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary. Further, the bill divests the power of investigation into a case under it, to an officer’s level. An officer, without any prior experience, handling potentially sensitive cases, is an issue that calls for greater scrutiny into the way the bill is proving detrimental to its objectives of protecting the country.
The bill seeks to bring attention to international conventions on various terror-related matters. However, it conveniently omits the basic one on the humane treatment of individuals under trial. A bill with such glaring errors and omissions is an example of how half-baked campaign slogans of “Majboot Sarkar” ( stable government) are backed with over-reaching acts to protect the country from threats: real and imagined.
Let’s move on to the famed act of freeing Muslim women in the guise of the Triple Talaq Bill, which faced multiple roadblocks since its inception in September 2018. Triple Talaq is called Talaq-e- Bid’at in Islamic terms, whose latter half literally means innovation. Thus, clarifying in obvious terms, this was a relatively new practice and not an essential part of the religion’s code on marriage.
At the very outset, the bill finds its basis in the declaration of triple talaq to be void and illegal by the Supreme Court, and thus, is nothing but a reinforcement of the same with added clauses—primarily focusing on maintenance and criminality. The bill while seeking to free Muslim women puts the onus of the maintenance on the husband, who under the bill, will be under criminal custody and be given bail only on the wife’s approval in front of a magistrate. This provision furthers dependence in the marriage, one for the allowance and the other for bail request.
For instance, the concept of Mehr in the Nikahnama (document of marriage), is a woman’s fundamental religious right which is settled at the time of marriage and is due in part on the husband’s death or divorce as well as immediately upon marriage. This amount could have been used to provide an allowance to the wife during talaq, or further as the basis for a legally enforceable penalty for initiating a talaq illegally. Today, Mehr has been reduced to a token amount and thus can be made relevant as a fine on men indulging in Talaq-E-Bid’at. A 500% over and above the Mehr is one suggestion by MP Asaduddin Owaisi. The impact would be a potentially less catastrophic yet stringent measure to curb this practice.
Furthermore, the ruling party’s paradoxes on the matter of women empowerment shine brightly from the disbanding of the government panel from the #MeToo movement to the prevention of women’s entry in Sabrimala. A truly effective bill would be one that encompasses separations in a marriage without a formal divorce, as well as outlaw practices such as triple talaq and dowry harassment, among others. It would be a step in the right direction of protecting both men and women of all religions. Although such a move would require strong political will, and it would do something the current bill can’t—due to its rash, targeted and discriminatory nature.
The final nail to the coffin is the RTI Amendment Bill (2019), a bill which two former CICs ( Central Information Commissioners) went on to say might “kill” the original Act. The bill seeks to change the status of the officials involved in the RTI process by subjecting their tenure, salary and allowances to revision by the government, thus providing the government with the necessary tools to ensure these officers have their allegiance to the government in power rather than the constitution or the people. The RTI has previously unveiled large scale corruption and government practises to the larger public and has been vexatious to any party in government, making it the ideal tool in a democracy. Any move to change it must be looked at with unabashed skepticism. It is pertinent to note that the RTI’s efficiency has slumped since the questions asked had moved from those of the past government’s to those about the current PM’s educational qualifications.
The bills which are on the course or have been passed by Parliament may have a profound impact on many lives, but what ultimately matters is where the average Indian stands on these matters. There’s a dire need to ensure every citizen is aware and vocal about these issues, independently, without prejudice or interference of the government or the anchors of a 9 p.m. “news debate”. Today, the citizenry must remain steadfast in the face of blowing winds of political hypocrisy masquerading as change and development.
A strong opposition must fight a majority government not walk out of the parliament when voting—as an apparent show of protest—instead of bringing these matters to the fore of public debate. Today, in no uncertain terms, the Indian experiment of democracy is being challenged and if these laws and their screaming hypocrisy is anything to go by, a slow and steady decline of the secular, free and equal country that is enshrined in the constitution has begun.