Friday, April 29, 2011

Illuminating the dark implications of some recent Punjab legislation

Shadow Over Democracy In Punjab

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

As I adjust the keyboard this Sunday morning to write on some recent legislation in Punjab , the flutter of newspapers crashing like blinded bats into the porch prompts me to go out and collect their scattered pages. Glancing over the headlines, the eyes pause over Punjabi Tribune . ‘Treasury pays Rs 3.14 crores for the treatment of CM's Wife' – the headline is blabbering morosely.
Not a week ago the paper had carried the news that the state government had exempted King's XI from payment of Rs 2 crores worth of taxes. On another page the same day it reported the enactment of the Punjab Civil Services (Rationalisation of Certain Conditions of Services) Act 2011. I visited the state government's website to see if I could read the text of the Act. I was disappointed. When the Punjab Special Security Group Act 2010 and the Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Act 2010 were enacted some months back, I had to ask people online to send texts of the two Acts. Someone had then scanned the pages and emailed them.
Why do people not have easy access to legislation? Why is proposed legislation shrouded in secrecy? Has the government lost confidence in the people? Are we still a democracy? I am sure everyone in the government needs a course in the Constitution of India, though I cannot say if the education will safeguard the Constitution or contribute to its further subversion.
If you take a look at what the press has been reporting about the Punjab Civil Services (Rationalisation of Certain Conditions of Services) Act 2011, you will agree that the Act has been titled rather badly. It actually deserves to be called the Punjab Restoration of Slavery Act 2011.
The Act splits its employees into a hierarchy that is medieval and colonial to say the least and consigns the Right to Equality to a shredder installed in some cunning bureaucrat's office. How can you, under the present Constitution of India which is still not suspended, treat some employees with that raw discrimination? Why not apply the same rules to all? Are IAS and PCS employees not employees? Will the government look up the meaning of ‘employee' in the previous Acts? Clearly, there is an attempt to divide the people into the rulers and the ruled, with the bureaucracy being confidentially co-opted, through a legislative delusion, by self-styled rulers.
The Act does not stop at dividing the people but goes on to assault the very dignity of everyone who hopes to be employed by the state in future (but with immediate effect!). For three years, extendable to five at the perverse whim of your boss, you will slave without equal salary, without any allowances that are actually not gifts of charity but your lawful claims, and without any security. This period of your life and work will not count towards your promotions; you will earn no increments for it; your rights to leave of various kinds shall also stand truncated. In other words, in the eyes of the government you will not have existed for any good during these years. By the time the years pass, the government hopes to have accomplished what the slave owners of old could not: broken you in like horses to pull the chariots of the princes. You will have forgotten what it means to stand up for your rights and demand justice. You will have erased the sign of interrogation from your memory and ethical consciousness.
The government knows it has the support of enormously subtle machinery of corporate media to aid you in the process of forgetting. And it understands that words like ‘rationalisation' can persuade you, against your deepest gut feeling, to submit with a smile of incomprehension to the government's ‘better reason'. If this is reason in its monstrous economic avatar today, what kind of reason then explains the government's mindless splurging from public exchequer? They tell us every time someone points this out that they have followed the rules. When reason follows rules without the rules following reason, does it not say something about the state of democracy and its future? Particularly when rules and laws are secretively framed, not subjected to popular debate even where evidently necessary, and passed in what seems to be apathy at best and torpor at worst? The truth is that economic ‘rationalisation' is only a fig leaf to cover up the encroachment of democratic spaces and to erase the traces of rape of people's sense of self-respect and dignity.
So much for Punjabiyat and Bharatiyata and their sworn guardians.
In his written statement submitted to the court in the trial of 1922, Gandhi famously stated the following:
They do not know [that] a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation or self-defense on the other, have emasculated the people . . . .
He was referring to the characteristic British method of subjugating the Indians: terrorise them through use of force and, at the same time, weaken them so much that they will not be able to even stand on their feet. Gandhi chose to use a word that might have for some today sexist connotations but that implied the extraction of the nerve that makes a man a man, a human being a human being - the nerve that flashes in the eyes of a woman too when she refuses to be treated like refuse, the nerve of resistance against insults to our sense of self-respect and dignity. In the Gita , Krishna touches the same nerve in Arjuna when he tells him, Do not act like one emasculated!
We need to read the shadowy Punjab Civil Services Act of 2011 with the two Acts that preceded it in 2010. Together these will explain how the British spectre continues to feed on our souls through those who replaced the British after independence. Power continues to be deployed the way the British, in Gandhi's analysis, deployed it. These two Acts, mentioned already, are the Punjab Special Security Group Act 2010 and the Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Act 2010.
Significantly, the first of these is motivated by a ‘felt' need. Felt by whom? Huh! Anyway, is it fair to let ‘feelings' spawn laws that will affect millions of lives? Are governments really so short of rational and empirical validations of proposed legislative measures?
I am struck by the unspecified connections the Punjab Special Security Group Act makes between law (and unlawful activities), the need to provide security to ‘highly threatened persons' and their families and the idea of nationalism. The mandate to combat anti-national forces is curiously linked to securing the lives of some persons and their families, thus indirectly mixing up the nation with certain persons and families. As if the nation were some patrimonial heirloom! And the term ‘anti-national forces' is invested with a sinisterly hazy meaning that embraces practically any activity that may be termed as ‘unlawful'. This is what the Act states:
‘Anti-national force' means any person, or organization or association of persons, which for its object, does any unlawful activity, or of which the members undertake such activity.
The act of pissing on someone's garden wall, being an unlawful act, would be – on this account – as heinous as aiming an assault rifle on someone. Protesting, even as a lone individual demonstrator, against a corrupt patwari without obtaining the district magistrate's permission to do so can invite the tag of an ‘anti-national force', for you will not have followed the law as implied in the Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Act 2010 but indulged in an unlawful activity by protesting without permission.
Not stopping here, the Act goes on to secure the Special Security Group and its members from any accountability to law:
No suit, prosecution or other legal proceeding shall lie against the Group or any member thereof on whom powers have been conferred or duties have been imposed under this Act, or any order issued or any rule or regulation made thereunder for anything which is in good faith done or purported to be done or omitted to be done in pursuance of this Act or any order issued or any rule or regulation made thereunder or any order issued under any such rule or regulation, as the case may be.
Is this not an almost otherworldly, fairytale situation of law being enacted to keep a force and its officers and men outside the ambit of law? Giorgio Agamben calls it ‘the state of exception' – the carving out, by the instrument of law, of a space in which the law does not apply; the space which is an exception to the rule of law for the stated purpose of upholding the law. What an idea, sir ji! And do not forget to note the happy wedding of ‘felt need' elsewhere with ‘good faith' here. ‘Subjectivity is truth,' Kierkegaard said. ‘Law is subjectivity,' we are being told.
Against such an overwhelming display of force you have, placed vulnerably and helplessly, the common citizen of the country (in this case, the proud Punjabi) who must stand outside a faceless bureaucrat's office, in Kafkaesque fashion, to beg for permission to protest against injustice, misrule, or plain incompetence. Should he proceed to protest, he can be jailed and fined. This is precisely what the Act complementary to the Punjab Special Security Group Act, known as the Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Act 2010 seeks, among other things, to ensure. For the Act states:
Whoever holds a protest, march or demonstration, without obtaining permission under section 3, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to two years, and shall also be liable to fine, which may extend to twenty thousand rupees.< History moves. It has moved far since the days of Emergency. Those who then fought and suffered in the name of Constitutional freedoms are today's architects of another, undeclared state of emergency. I hope they know not what they are doing.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma is Associate Professor in English, Punjabi University , Patiala (Pb). He edits South Asian Ensemble and publishes the blog kriticulture . His email is


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