Facing criticism from various sections, the Vasundhara Raje government referred The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2017, which seeks to muzzle the press and shield judges and government servants from investigation into any wrongdoing, to a select committee on Tuesday, a day after it was tabled in the House.
The BJP leadership in Delhi is learnt to have prompted Raje to refrain from pushing the Bill. Sources said a top BJP leader told Raje on Monday that the provision which curbs freedom of the media was “constitutionally unsustainable” and likely to fall foul of the Constitution.
“One could argue in favour of or against the provisions for prior sanction before prosecution, but the provision curbing freedom of media was constitutionally unsustainable. In fact, that entire provision curbing freedom of media in the Rajasthan legislation was beyond the reasonable restrictions requirement under the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution,” said a source who was aware of the BJP leadership’s message to its government in the state.
Sources said Raje’s move had taken a section of the BJP leadership by surprise. On Monday, the state government tabled the Bill in the House to replace The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, promulgated on September 6 by Governor Kalyan Singh. But in the evening, Raje called senior ministers to her residence and is learnt to have asked them to have a “rethink” on the Bill. It was at this meeting that the decision to send the Bill to a select committee was taken.
Speaking to reporters outside the assembly Tuesday, senior Cabinet Minister Rajendra Rathore said that although the Ordinance may be in effect, “the government’s desire will be to not act upon it… that no action is taken through the Ordinance.” He said the Ordinance would automatically lapse six weeks from Monday, when the Bill was tabled.
“There was some confusion among the press, which thought that the government is trying to curtail its expression. So the Chief Minister sincerely considered all such points in her Monday evening meeting and directed the ministers to send it to a select committee,” said Rathore. He said the government wasn’t caught on the “back foot”, but it has a “big heart” and is acting on its “democratic values” by considering diverse voices.
The select committee will have 15 members, including Opposition MLAs, and will submit its report in two months after a “comprehensive review”. The report will be tabled in the next assembly session, which is likely to be in February.
As per rules, the select committee considers the provisions of the Bill and can also obtain the views of experts. If a member disagrees with the decision taken by the committee, he can record his dissent. The report of the committee, along with the dissent note, is published in a gazette and its copies are circulated to members of the House. The House can refer the Bill to the select committee again, but it can do so only once. The minister of the concerned department is the ex-officio chairman of the committee — in this case, it is Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria.
In its current form, the Bill prohibits investigation without prior sanction against “a Judge or a Magistrate or a public servant” for any “act done by them while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of their official duties”. Under its provisions, the media too cannot report on the accusation against such a person until the prosecution gets the go-ahead from the sanctioning authority, which may take up to six months.
Earlier in the day, as soon as the House convened, Opposition members protested against the Bill. When rebel BJP MLA Ghanshyam Tiwari too objected to the Bill, Kataria retorted: “Were you sleeping for a month? For a month-and-a-half, not a single person among you protested over it anywhere. You didn’t have time to read it and now you are shouting.”
Kataria said the government had not broken any law while bringing the Ordinance. As the Opposition MLAs rushed to the well of the House demanding withdrawal of the “black law”, Kataria said: “If you think there are some shortcomings in a law, it should be discussed. But since they only want to shout, I propose that it be moved to a select committee, which will present its report in the first week of the next assembly session.”
Initially, another Bill — The Code of Criminal Procedure (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2017 — was sent to the committee, but the error was later rectified.
Congress leader Sachin Pilot claimed his party’s “struggle to safeguard democratic values” had led to the state government’s decision. The Opposition demanded that the Ordinance should be repealed.
Meanwhile, journalists held a protest march and courted arrest in the morning, while lawyers also called a day-long strike. In the high court too, the Ordinance has been challenged by at least three petitions.— With ENS inputs, Delhi