May 19, 2021
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Confrontation? What Confrontation?

The law minister is blatant - says 'it has been respectfully conveyed to the President that suggestions given by him would be discussed in Parliament. His message would be read out in Parliament and discussion on the bill would centre around that.'

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Confrontation? What Confrontation?
Confrontation? What Confrontation?

Transcript of BBC Hindi special programme, Aapki Baat BBC Ke Saath with the law minister H.R. Bhardwaj on why is the UPA government consistently on  a path of confrontation with judiciary and other constitutional bodies of the country

Nagendar Sharma : Why are we increasingly getting this felling that Parliament wants a confrontation with Judiciary? Take the vote of confidence in Jharkhand, dissolution of Bihar assembly, expulsion of tainted MPs and now the fresh episode of office of profit. 

H.R. Bhardwaj : If at all there is any impression of confrontation, it is totally unfounded. In my view, the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary – all are indispensable pillars of the country’s constitutional democracy, and all of them are discharging their duties within their limits without interfering in each other’s work. None of the above mentioned examples by you give any such impression. If a citizen of the country feels that any decision is wrong, he has a complete right of challenging it, and the country’s constitution says remedy can be sought in the court of law. You said confrontation, on the contrary I say it is a healthy sign for democracy if the decisions are subjected to scrutiny. If any particular matter is brought to the notice of the court, it would listen to it and decide accordingly, where is the question of confrontation? Let us be clear that laws would be enacted by Parliament and would be interpreted by the courts, there should be no doubt regarding this well set principle. I am also clearly saying that the legislature has never interfered in judiciary’s work and similarly the judiciary has also never interfered in any other constitutional body’s work. It should be understood that the verdict of the Supreme Court is final.

Therefore I outrightly reject the term coined as confrontation between the parliament and the judiciary. For a vibrant democracy, decisions must have checks and counter-checks.

Nagendar Sharma : But, Mr Bhardwaj, turning to the burning issue of Office of Profit [OOP], why is the government unwilling to consider the suggestions made by the President while returning the bill to the parliament for reconsideration? does this not give the impression that the government is not ready to listen to anyone and is purely guided by political compulsions?

H.R. Bhardwaj : A lot of confusion is being spread on the Office of Profit bill. What I do not understand is why was such a furore created? MPs across party lines have been holding additional offices pertaining to their constituencies or states they represent. It is not that they have been earning lot of money, in fact they have been burdened by additional work. A false impression was created in the country as if some MPs were earning a huge amount of money by holding additional offices. Please go through the facts first. The government fully respects the views of the President. It has been respectfully conveyed to the President that suggestions given by him would be discussed in the Parliament. His message would be read out in the Parliament and discussion on the bill would centre around that.

Nagendar Sharma : But the union cabinet has decided to re-introduce the bill in its original form without making any changes. It clearly means that the government has ignored President’s suggestions.

H.R. Bhardwaj : I would like to make it clear that President's office is above dispute and cannot be dragged in any sort of controversy. The President of the country cannot be made a topic of discussion in any manner. The President's name should never be dragged to influence a parliamentary debate. So far as the UPA government is concerned, we fully respect the President's office and his views.

We have already made an offer to the opposition that if it wants we are ready for a detailed debate in the House. We categorically want to state that the bill which was sent to the president after having been passed by both houses of parliament was correct and it had no shortcoming - legal or constitutional. However since the President has made some suggestions, those would be debated to give due respect to his views.

Listener from Bihar : Sir, but, why is the government only exempting certain offices coming under office of profit clause? Why does the government not bring a comprehensive legislation so that the issue is settled once and for all ? It creates an impression that the government is completely working under pressure of Left parties.

H.R. Bhardwaj : It has been a tradition in our country that if any MP was given an additional work concerning his state or constituency, then it was incumbent on the MP to get his additional office exempted from the parliament. It was till now merely a procedural matter till the opposition recently decided to raise the controversy.

Article 102 of the Constitution, which defines disqualification for holding an office of profit also provides the remedy of exemption with Parliament's assent. Those making a lot of noise should understand that posts of leaders of opposition in both houses of Parliament, chief whips and chairpersons of various committees have been exempted by the same procedure that they are opposing today. It is the only constitutional way of resolving this issue. The UPA government has taken a broad stand rising above party politics. It is a fact that MPs from various parties, holding additional offices including the chief whip of BJP in Lok Sabha, figure in the list of those which the government is seeking to exempt by bringing this bill.

So far as the question of a uniform and comprehensive legislation is concerned, well, the local conditions are different in each state. What constitutes an office of profit in west Bengal, does not do so in Maharashtra. That is why the UP government brought its own legislation in the matter, so did the Jharkhand state government. Therefore any single law would not be able to solve the problem of the entire country.

Listener from Delhi : Mr Bhardwaj, it has been more than two years since the UPA government assumed office. In this time, how far do you think your government succeeded in fulfilling its electoral promise of providing justice to the common man?

H.R. Bhardwaj : India has an ancient legal system which has been in place since the British rule. We have not gone in for a complete overhaul - which would have been impractical. Instead we have decided to take steps for improvement. First of all, the UPA government decided to modernise the judicial machinery in the country, which was in a primitive stage. Work was being done manually using typewriters. Beginning with the Supreme Court, and then to all the High Courts -- these are all now fully computerised and now the work is on in the district courts. This has led to updating the judiciary as well as the law ministry about the pendency of cases in each court, which was not known earlier. After this, we are going to computerise the magistrates courts as well. Next we decided to fill the vacant posts of judges in the country and we have been able to appoint 250 High Court judges in last two years.

BBC listener from Kolkota : Sir, whether we create more courts or appoint more judges, that is not the solution in my view as the fact is that the common man does not trust this legal procedure in which killers of Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Nitish Katara walk free – to name a few. Is the government doing anything to restore the trust of common people in the judiciary?

H.R. Bhardwaj : Well, let us be clear one thing that be it a politician, or a criminal or a common man -- all are equal in the eyes of law. Indian law does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of their social status. We may brand anyone powerful and others weak, but they are all a part of the society and if someone feels that they are being subjected to any kind of injustice then it is their duty to raise their voice rather than maintaining silence on it. Aggrieved people and their relatives and  friends should ensure that witnesses come forward to depose, they should follow-up the prosecution handling of the case and keep a check. 

I admit during the past years some main criminal trials have collapsed due to faulty investigation and poor arguments from the prosecution side, which has led to public dissatisfaction and aware sections of the society have spoken out against this. It has been due to such voices that the government decided to bring in laws for ensuring justice to the families of the victimes in criminal trials. Recently, the government has amended the existing criminal laws to provide protection to witnesses, make investigation free of governmental clutches and appointment of efficient public prosecutors. What we want is that there should be a widespread debate in the country on ways to improve the legal system, and the government would respond to suggestions and we should be able to make the legal system responsive, cost effective, resulting in quick disposal of cases.

Listener from Ghazipur : Sir common people like me find the legal procedure of the country very complicated and time- consuming. Cases linger on in courts for years and decades, and for the majority of people of the country living in villages there is no access to the law. Why does the government not initiate village courts?

H.R. Bhardwaj : I must congratulate you on your farsighted and intelligent question. The government is already taking steps to ensure time-bound disposal of cases. Common people of the country should get justice quickly and at low costs, this is the spirit of the constitution and the government is determined to get this done. I am happy to inform you that the union government is soon going to bring a bill for setting up of village courts. These courts would function in the villages, so that the people living in villages do not have to spend money to travel to towns in search of justice. In fact, justice would be provided to them at their door-step, and this would be time bound. This is the priority of UPA government. I am in constant touch with the law ministers of states and soon the country should hear about this.

Nagendar Sharma : Village courts would definitely be a big step, but would such courts be effective? 

H.R. Bhardwaj : Well, as the name suggests, these courts would be called Gramin Nyayalayas. Presently, we have a procedure in the country that judicial officers sit in their courts and people have to come to the courts. Now under this proposal, these nyayalas would function in villages at the intermediate Panchayat level. At present there are more than six thousand such Panchayats in the country. The judges for these nayayalas would have the power to decide civil cases upto the limit on one lakh rupees and criminal cases in which there is a sentence of two years. Judges would sit in public and would hold summary trials and they would have a three month period to decide the cases. Separate cadre would be created for the selection of judges to work in Gramin Nyayalas. This would bring down the pendency of cases and avoid the hardships caused to villagers from travelling to spending money. This concept is based on the Law Commission report.

Listener from Jharkhand : Sir, militant activities are on the rise in the country and it looks that existing laws are not sufficient to act as a deterrent in checking such dangerous trends. Is it not the time to re-enact a tough law like POTA, while ensuring it is not misused?

H.R. Bhardwaj : Well, terrorism is a problem which has assumed global proportions and the way to deal with it would also have to be such. Let me remind you that I was the Law Minister of the country when we had decided to bring TADA, to deal with the problem of militancy in Punjab. What happened later was that voices were raised against that law saying it was a tough law and should be repealed. Keeping in mind the sentiments of the country, the parliament decided to repeal it. Then the world was shaken up by 9/11 attacks in New York, following which all the countries of the world said a joint fight against terrorism was required. In keeping with it, the government in India of that time decided to bring POTA, but a lot of complaints were received about its misuse. After coming to office, our government set-up review committees to look into the complaints, and you would be surprised to know that till date we are receiving lot of complaints that poor people have been harassed by that law. Therefore what is required is not another law, but a comprehensive approach to deal with militancy, and our existing laws are sufficient to deal with the problem. What we require is a fresh look at the investigative agencies, greater vigilance by our security forces and strong determination to deal with it.

Nagendar Sharma : What are the concrete steps being taken to clear the huge back-log of cases in the courts of the country?

H.R. Bhardwaj : Well, we have identified our priorities to clear the back-log of cases. Since assuming office nearly two years back, the UPA government has created a record by appointing 250 High Court judges in the country. This means an average of 125 judges each year, earlier this average was 60-70 per year. We are now moving towards zero vacancies in High Courts. Next we are looking at district courts, which would have to be done by the state governments in consultation with the respective high courts. We have earmarked Rs one thousand crores for the computerisation of all the courts in the country. Soon there would be a time when Supreme Court could find out the status of cases in district courts by the click of a mouse.

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