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10 laws that shaped the Republic of India

In the beginning, laws were about laying the Republic’s infrastructure. As it matured over the years, laws reflected the sophistication of its superstructure. If a law passed in the early years was meant to realize the basic promise of holding free and fair elections, a recent one was designed to make the system more transparent and accountable. The evolution of laws tells its own tale about the 70-year-old Republic.

1. Fleshing out democracy


The Election Commission of India was constituted on January 25, 1950, just a day before the Constitution came into force. It is no coincidence that the Indian republic’s first major legislative measure was to implement its Constitutional commitment to usher in the universal adult franchise. What has fleshed out the world’s biggest ever experiment in democracy is a set of two laws bearing the same name, which was borrowed from Britain, the Representation of the People Acts 1950 and 1951.

While the 1950 Act laid down the procedure and machinery for preparing electoral rolls and demarcating constituencies, the 1951 Act did the same for conducting elections, from their notification to the declaration of results. In the many amendments that have since been made to the two RP Acts, the canvassing period, for instance, has been reduced from a month to a fortnight.

2. Shielding agrarian reforms


The first Constitutional amendment, piloted by Nehru in 1951, effected far-reaching changes in diverse areas. First, it imposed “reasonable restrictions” on the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or carry on any occupation, trade or business. Second, overturning a judicial verdict against reservations, it introduced a clause clarifying that any special provision that the state might make for the educational, social or economic advancement of any backward class could not be challenged on the ground of being discriminatory.

Given the priority then of dismantling the zamindari system, the most politically sensitive aspect of the first Constitutional amendment was the introduction of the Ninth Schedule to insulate agrarian reforms from legal challenge. The Ninth Schedule served very well as a shield to the various land reforms laws passed by states in the first three decades after Independence.

3. Reforming Hindu customs


When Ambedkar introduced his comprehensive Hindu Code Bill in Parliament in February 1951, there was such opposition to it that he resigned as law minister within seven months. It was only after it won the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952 did the Nehru government muster the courage to revive the Hindu reform agenda, that too in the form of piecemeal legislation.

Even so, the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 was revolutionary as it outlawed polygamy and introduced the concept of divorce in a community that believed that marriage was a sacrament which bound a couple together birth after birth. Equally significant, the Hindu Succession Act 1956 conferred full ownership of women for their share of the family property rather than the limited rights that had been traditionally given.

4. Taking on untouchability


For all the social reforms made during colonial rule, the Constitution abolished untouchability for the first time. The Republic took another five years to back the abolition with a law that penalizes various manifestations of untouchability, the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955. Since this law was however confined to instances of caste prejudice and discrimination, the Rajiv Gandhi government came up with the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 to deal with the more violent caste-driven offences.

Despite the poor record of their enforcement, the very enactment of the two untouchability-related laws had its own symbolic value. India has been flogging it to counter efforts before the UN to treat caste as a form of human rights violations.

5. Redrawing the political map


The seventh Constitutional amendment enacted in 1956 introduced the concepts of linguistic states and Union territories, both of which have stood the test of time. Though the demand for linguistic states was widespread, the impetus came from the fatal hunger strike of Potti Sreeramulu in 1952 for carving out Andhra state from the Telugu-speaking districts of the composite Madras state.

The formation of the Andhra state in 1953 was followed by the appointment of the States Reorganization Commission (SRC), which did not, however, agree with the idea of redrawing boundaries purely on linguistic basis. Though SRC recommended the formation of a separate Telangana state with Hyderabad as its capital, the government, bowing to the pressure of Andhra leaders, merged the two Telugu-speaking regions in 1956 to create Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, though SRC recommended that Bombay remain a composite state encompassing Gujarati and Marathi speaking districts, the government yielded in 1960 to the demand for creating Maharashtra by merging all the Marathi speaking districts.

6. Checking defections


After bagging the largest ever majority in the 1984 election held under the shadow of Indira Gandhi’s murder and the subsequent massacre of Sikhs, Rajiv Gandhi came up with the long-overdue anti-defection law, in the form of the 52nd Constitutional amendment in 1985. But it only made defections harder, not impossible. Politicians exploited the loophole that recognized a defection by at least one-third of the members of a legislature party as a split.

The Vajpayee government plugged this loophole with the 91st Constitutional amendment in 2003. The only way defections can now take place is through the merger route, when at least two-thirds of the members of a legislature party agree to its merger with another.

7. Special law for Muslims


This law is widely believed to have triggered a chain of events that undermined secularism: Rise of Hindutva, the revival of BJP, outbreaks of communal violence, demolition of Babri Masjid and terrorism. For, when the Rajiv Gandhi government came up with the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, it was seen as an attempt to appease Muslim fundamentalists by overturning the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case.

While the court rendered a Muslim husband liable to pay maintenance to his deserted wife, the law enacted in the wake of the judgment gave the man the option of making a one-time provision within three months for her lifetime depending on his economic status. Ironically, for all the calumny heaped on this special law, the benefits received under it by Muslim women in many cases have turned out to be far greater than they could possibly have got under the secular law.

8. Grassroots democracy


The Gandhian dream of Gram Swaraj (village self-governance) entered the realm of possibility in 1992 when the Narasimha Rao government pushed through the 73rd Constitutional amendment. Panchayati Raj, which had for decades been ad hoc and notoriously bereft of powers and funds, suddenly acquired Constitutional trappings.

Besides taking democracy to the grassroots, the Panchayati Raj law demonstrated the efficacy of reserving one-third of the constituencies for women, a provision that has been repeatedly blocked in the case of the two higher layers of governance. It was also closely followed by the 74th Constitutional amendment to institutionalize Nagar Palikas in urban areas.

9. Piercing the veil of secrecy


If this law enacted barely five years ago has put even the Chief Justice of India on the defensive, that too repeatedly, there can be no better measure of the extent of its impact. Not surprising, given that the Right to Information Act 2005 is acknowledged as one of the most progressive transparency laws in the world. Besides specifying the limited organizations and categories of information exempted from its purview, RTI provided for independent appellate bodies and penalties for errant officials.
But the Manmohan Singh government, instead of basking in the glory of its enactment, has already made two abortive attempts to dilute it. It is increasingly clear to rulers that whoever opposes RTI is on the wrong side of history.

10. Welfare on steroids


No list of India’s seminal laws can be complete without the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) 2005. For, this law, recently renamed after Mahatma Gandhi, is undoubtedly the most ambitious welfare scheme in the 60-year history of the Republic. The security of guaranteed employment for 100 days in a year to every rural household volunteering to do unskilled manual work has shown the greatest potential as an anti-poverty measure.

If Rajasthan can claim credit to have pioneered RTI before it was adopted at the national level, Maharashtra is the progenitor of the concept of guaranteed rural employment. There is happy synergy between the two major enactments of the Manmohan Singh government.

RTI is being used by activists as a safeguard to prevent intermediaries from diverting or misusing NREGA funds.

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