In the immense noise around Anna Hazare’s proposed protest on August 16 and the government’s high-handed refusal to allow him the right to sit on his protest , a key issue has been forgotten: What exactly is Team Anna demanding this time round? Both the government’s draft of the Lokpal Bill and Team Anna’s draft have many contentious issues which needs careful debate in a less acrimonious climate. A detailed discussion of that is subject for another story, what is far more important is to know that at this moment, far from the “our way or the highway” position that Team Anna had held a few weeks ago, their demand now is much more reasonable and open-minded.
In a huge departure from their earlier position, according to lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Team Anna is no longer adamant that the Bill be passed in this Monsoon session of Parliament. They only want the current imperfect government draft to be withdrawn; a stronger draft—not necessarily their own—to be re-introduced and debated through constitutional processes and passed by the winter session of Parliament.
Crucially, they are also willing to be open-minded about the three other most contentious issues that have been a stumbling block so far. They are no longer insisting before-hand that the PM should be included in the Lokpal; or that the grievance redressal mechanism be a part of the Lokpal; or that the judiciary corruption be subsumed under the Lokpal. They are willing to debate and discuss their position on these issues through the constitutional mechanism of the Parliamentary Standing Committee.
According to Bhushan, the list of more immediate demands Team Anna wants included in the government draft bill is
1) There should be a provision to set up State Lokayuktas simultaneously with a central Lokayukta through the central Lokpal Bill. (The government’s bill has only made provision for setting up a central Lokpal. This would mean to push for setting up Lokayuktas in all the states might need civil society to create separate and heated agitations in each of these states.)
2) A more broad-based selection process for the Lokpal along the lines suggested by them. (This is a fair demand as the government draft has made no attempt to ensure the independence of the Lokpal and remove the problem of “conflict of interest” in the selection process)
3) A better and more fool-proof process for removal of Lokpal if there is any misconduct, along the lines suggested by Team Anna. (Again, this is a fair demand as the removal clause in the government draft would allow for a lot of interference and discretion from the government, thereby compromising the independence of the Lokpal.)
4) Inclusion of a strong whistleblower protection program in the government’s Lokpal Bill. (Again a reasonable demand from Team anna as the current government draft has ignored this altogether.)
5) Removal of the clause in the government bill that currently has a provision that might allow for severe harassment of the complainant or whistleblower, thereby deterring people from complaining.
6) Bring the CBI entirely under the Lokpal. (This demand remains somewhat contentious as the government draft bill has already created provision for the Lokpal to have an independent investigative agency. But Team Anna wants the government to have no agency looking into corruption under their power at all.)
Over the past few months, there are many civil society activists, jurists, commentators and members of the media including Tehelka—who have disagreed with some of the provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill as drafted by Team Anna. There has also been a lot of criticism about the nature of their demand and the manner in which they have framed their arguments and tried to hostage the government into passing the Lokpal Bill in exactly the form dictated by them.
Many of us strongly believe that a legislation cannot be debated and brokered in this manner. Rallies, hunger strikes, even other more escalated forms of peaceful protest are legitimate ways to draw attention to grievance. But there can be no substitute for reasoned debate as far as legislation goes.
Unfortunately, the government’s own draft Bill was a very poor and ill thought out document. Now, its preventive arrests and high-handed refusal to allow Anna Hazare and his supporters to sit in protest for a stronger Lokpal Bill cannot be condemned unequivocally enough.
It is a foundation stone of democracy that no matter how much you disagree with someone, you must defend their right to have their say. And protest peacefully.
However, even as one slams the government for their myopic vision and undemocratic clamp down on civil liberties, the other key question we should now be asking is: If Team Anna has shifted position from their earlier unrelenting—and equally undemocratic stand—why is the government still refusing to meet them half way?
Do we really need the ungainly crisis of August 16?
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka