New I-T raid law violates basic rights

While many of the amendments of laws that the government brought about through the back door using the Finance Bill are wrong and ill-conceived, one stands out as an attack on the rights of individuals and entities. The liberalisation of the rules of political funding and the merger and winding up of tribunals are bad policy decisions, but the provision that empowers tax officials to arbitrarily search and seize anyone’s property goes beyond them in its sweep and impact. The officials can now conduct such raids “if they have reason to believe” that it is necessary for protecting the interest of revenue. They do not have to disclose or explain to anyone, including the appellate tribunal, the reason for the raid. The law is also retrospective with effect from 1962, and in the post-1975 cases the property can be confiscated. It is unimaginable that such an elaborately planned and detailed law with serious consequences can be brought into being in such cavalier fashion.

The finance minister has claimed many times that he did not believe in retrospective law, which is considered very undesirable especially with respect to taxes. It is unfair and takes away the tax payer’s right to plan his savings and payments. But the more serious problem with the provision is the arrogation of unquestioned and absolute powers by the executive with no opportunity for relief. An income tax official can turn anyone into an assessee now and scrutinise finances without disclosing any reason and even provisionally attach properties belonging to the assessee. Such unbridled powers can only lead to tax terrorism and may be used against persons who are on the wrong side of the government and to settle political or personal scores. It is a weapon to cow down critics, activists, rights advocates and whistle blowers who may create inconvenience and embarrassment to the government.

The provision for such raids violates some basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution. To raid a person’s premises and property without an explanation and to confiscate it is an authoritarian action which happens only in lawless societies. The rule of law demands that a person should be told of the reasons for any action taken by the executive against him or her. The new provision goes against this and allows officials to harass citizens, and they will not be held accountable for their actions. Raids can be conducted to humiliate and harass persons and to sully their image. An environment in which the rights of the individual are devalued and the powers of the state are boosted is taking hold in the country. The raid rule is proof of that.

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