Raje's bill effort to shield corrupt

Faced with severe criticism from all quarters, the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan has referred the controversial Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill 2017 to a select committee. Announcing this in the state assembly on Tuesday, Home Minister Gulab Chandra Kataria said the committee will submit its report within 42 days, before the ordinance it seeks to replace lapses. The bill is so shocking in its brazenness that it has evoked articulate protests by some even within the BJP. Ostensibly aimed at protecting public servants against false cases, it is a naked attempt to intimidate the media into silence and cover up wrongful acts by public servants, including politicians, bureaucrats and judges. The amendments, if passed, would not allow a judge to admit complaints against any public servant without prior permission of the government; it would also make prior sanction mandatory even for a preliminary investigation. This runs counter to Supreme Court judgements on corruption in high offices. The bill not only bars the media from revealing the identity of public servants against whom charges have been made, it also makes it an offence punishable with two years of imprisonment.

The BJP has defended the ordinance on the ground that such provisions are in place in Maharashtra. However, this is the first time a section prescribing punishment for disclosure of an accused’s name is being introduced in India. The time-limit for barring investigation without prior sanction in Maharashtra is 90 days, Raje’s government wants 180 days. The Centre, too, has a set of amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act, including a provision for prior sanction, pending since 2013. In a 2014 judgement, however, the Supreme Court struck down a statutory provision for prior government clearance for a CBI probe against officials. The court observed that such a provision destroys the objective of anti-corruption legislation, blocks the truth from surfacing, thwarts independent investigation and forewarns corrupt officials.

It is inarguable that honest politicians, judges and public servants need protection from frivolous complaints and litigation. But enough laws exist already to ensure this. Laws for civil and criminal defamation are strong enough to deter frivolous media reports. Threatening journalists for exposing corruption in high places is worse than pre-censorship. But attempting to provide protection to corrupt officers and gagging the media from reporting the allegations is one more move in the pattern of U-turns the BJP has made on its poll promise to put a strong anti-corruption legislation in place. The Modi government’s failure to operationalise the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act that was unanimously passed by the previous Lok Sabha, underscores the BJP’s double-speak. The Raje government’s bill is against the norms of democracy and transparency. Rather than have a select committee examine it, it must be discarded completely.

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