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05 February, 2013

Limits of sporadic protests

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Concerned citizens who came out to protest as the government dilly-dallied on critical issues during the past two years have gone back, and the political class is back at its old game.

In the last few years, across India people have staged myriad protests against the central and state governments’ policies and failings but their voices rarely went beyond their towns and villages.

Two issues, corruption and women’s security, developed into national causes and unnerved politicians as the capital was the epicentre of protests, and the tremors they set in motion reached urban centres throughout the country.

One of them was the anti-corruption movement initiated by Anna Hazare, a social activist of Maharashtra. India Against Corruption, a civil society group led by rights activist Arvind Kejriwal, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former police officer Kiran Bedi, mobilised support for it. Large crowds turned up at the venue of the fasts Hazare undertook on the issue in New Delhi.

The movement forced the central government to rush through the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, a bill which had been in cold storage for several decades. The bill got stalled in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, which set up a select committee to go through it and suggest changes.

Last week the government revised the bill in the light of the select committee report. While accepting several recommendations of the committee, it has rejected the proposal to vest in the Lokpal, the proposed ombudsman, the power to transfer officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation. It has also turned down the suggestion that officials facing Lokpal probe should not be heard at the preliminary stage of inquiry.

Anna Hazare has expressed disappointment with its provisions of the bill and accused the government of going back on the commitments made to him. “This government is incapable of making good laws,” he says.

However, Kiran Bedi has welcomed the measure. Whatever its faults, with its passage, at least some anti-corruption mechanism will be in place, she points out.

Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan recently broke away from Hazare to float a political party, arguing it is necessary to enter the electoral arena to make a difference to the situation.

Team Anna having split, the government does not see any threat of a new movement. However, in the absence of a clear majority for the ruling United Progressive Alliance in either house of Parliament, it is not possible to say if the bill will pass master and if so in what form.

Since the bill will emerge from the Rajya Sabha in a form different from what the Lok Sabha adopted it will have to go back to that house. If the Lok Sabha does not approve of the changes made by the Rajya Sabha, the two houses will have to hold a joint sitting to vote on it.

Women’s security emerged as a major issue after a 23-year-old paramedical student was gangraped and brutally assaulted in a Delhi bus on the night of December 16. She died a few days later in a hospital in Singapore, where she was sent at government expense for treatment.

Responding to waves of protest in Delhi and elsewhere demanding stern measures to check gender violence, the government appointed a three-member committee headed by JS Verma, a former chief justice of India, to recommend measures to deal with rising sexual offences.

The committee earned all-round praise by hearing the views of all sections of opinion and coming up with a comprehensive set of proposals within a month. Justice Verma asked the government to match the panel’s commitment by implementing its recommendations immediately. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote back: “I assure you that we will be prompt in pursuing the recommendations of the committee.”

The government acted fast but not fairly. With no protesters in the streets to put pressure, it felt free to take liberties with the panel’s report. It ignored the suggestion to make marital rape an offence. It also overlooked the recommendation to review the provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which protect rapist soldiers.

The government sugarcoated the rejection of important recommendations by promulgating an ordinance, instead of going to parliament with a bill, and including in it a provision for the death penalty, which many groups had sought but was not favoured by the Verma panel.

The government’s response to the two agitations shows sporadic protests are not an adequate substitute for sustained civil society action.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 5, 2013.

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