The Rajya Sabha on Monday saw high drama and embarrassment for the government as a Constitution amendment bill on backward classes was changed after some amendments moved by the Opposition were passed by the House. The Constitution (123rd Amendment) Bill, 2017, providing for setting up of a National Commission for Backward Classes, was passed after dropping Clause 3, to which four amendments was approved by the House earlier. The dropped clause pertains to the insertion of a new article 338B about the constitution and powers of the National Commission for Backward Classes.
The amended bill will now have to be returned to the Lok Sabha for its fresh approval. The Lower House had already passed the bill but in the Upper House it had been referred to a Select Committee as the Opposition had wanted more scrutiny.
Days after the Select Committee submitted its report, the Rajya Sabha today took up the Constituent amendment bill, whose passage requires two-third majority of those present and voting in the 245-member House. While the clauses of the bill were being put to vote, Congress members Digvijaya Singh, B K Hariprasad and Hussain Dalvai moved a number of amendments to clause 3.
One amendment sought increase in the number of members of the proposed commission from three to five with reservation for a member from a minority community and another for women. Another amendment spoke about protecting the rights of states by making their recommendations binding.
Minister for Social Justice Thawar Chand Gehlot said the suggestions proposed through the amendments would be kept in mind while framing the rules. However, Digvijay Singh pressed for division of votes, saying “they (government) are jumla politics people” and could not be trusted.
Subsequently, the amendments were passed by 74 to 52 votes, causing an embarrassment for the ruling side which has a strength of 89, if JD(U)’s 10 members are also counted with them. This led to a deadlock as the clause which was amended was required to be passed by a two-third majority of those present and voting. This meant that the both the ruling and the opposition had to vote together.
A war of words ensued between the ruling and the opposition benches over this as the government was not ready to accept the amendments moved by the Congress members. However, since the amendment had already been passed, there was no going back, Deputy Chairman P J Kurien ruled.
At the same time, he said since the proceedings of passing the bill had been initiated, it had to be completed anyhow. Some members said if the bill was not passed, there would be disappointment among the backward classes who have been waiting for the Commission. To find a way out, the proceedings were suspended for 10 minutes.
Afterwards, Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad said the government should accept the amendments. To this, Leader of the House and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the members could not be confined to any particular community and questioned whether the Congress wanted “exclusivity to be a part of the Constitution?”
He said exclusivity will render the bill unconstitutional. However, the bill was finally put to vote, dropping the Clause 3 from it. It was passed by 124 to 0 votes, ending a drama of about 90 minutes.
Accordingly, a related bill — The National Commission for Backward Classes (Repeal) Bill, 2017 — was not taken up. Earlier, the treasury benches and the opposition traded charges against each other, with the government accusing the opposition of not wanting to get the bill for backward classes passed while the opposition put the blame on the government for this lapse.
“The backward classes have been making this demand for decades and what has been done today is deceit with them. You will have to suffer the consequences of these moments for decades. You want this bill to be stalled and challenged in court,” Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said.
Azad countered by saying that his party was not against the bill but the government should strengthen it. “The government is responsible for all this. It happened because of them. The government wants to weaken the backward commission,” the Congress leader said. Jaitley said the opposition has passed an amendment that cannot stand the scrutiny of courts.
“You want to bring a provision which can be challenged in the court tomorrow,” he said, adding that by passing the amendment that seeks to have a member of the minority community and another woman, the opposition is excluding all the others. Jaitley also told the opposition “If that is the insistence that they want that the backward classes bill should fail, let them do so.”
Earlier, while moving the bill for passage, Gehlot described the legislation as “historic”. The minister sought to allay fears of members, saying the bill does not seek to reduce the rights of states who have powers to include/exclude any caste from the list of OBC reservation.
The new Commission for backward classes that will be set up after the promulgation of the law passed today will have constitutional powers as enjoyed by the SC and ST Commissions, he said. “The concerns of members that this bill will encroach upon the rights of states are wrong. There is no attempt to reduce the rights of states and attack the federal structure,” Gehlot said.
The Minister also made it clear that the BJP is in favour of reservation and will continue to be so, dispelling insinuations made by some opposition members. Gehlot thanked the members for supporting the bill irrespective of party lines and said the concerns expressed by members are baseless.
“This bill has been brought with good intentions. The BJP is in favour of reservations and will continue to be so,” he said. The Opposition members had earlier raised strong objections to the setting up of a creamy layer in the other backward classes category for providing them benefits of reservation, but government said it is carrying on and has not been created afresh.
JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav said the legislation in its present form would make the proposed commission toothless. He opposed a clause in the bill related to the creamy layer, saying it will create havoc. SP leader Ram Gopal Yadav said even after so many years of implementing reservation policy, the number of OBCs in government jobs remained very low.
“Even then you (government) have brought in this policy of ‘creamy layer’. OBCs with annual income of Rs 6 lakh will fall in the creamy layer. It should not be there,” Yadav said. S Muthukaruppan of AIADMK suggested that members of the commission should be selected after consulting the state governments.
Nadimul Haque (TMC) said the bill in the current form went against the country’s federal structure as it undermined the role of state governments and state commissions. Ram Nath Thakur (JD-U) asked the government to abolish the ‘creamy layer’ policy. T K S Elangovan (DMK) said the Bill should protect the rights of the states.