1984 — Who's with me?
Wednesday, March 22, 2017. I don't know whether this date will go down in written history, but I would like to not forget it, which is why I'm here, tapping away at my keyboard while struggling to formulate a clear sentence at the end of what has been a battering ram of a day.
Just before 6pm this evening, the Finance Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. By this time, most of the Opposition, for whatever its worth, had staged a walkout. Among the few who stood their ground against the government and its Finance Bill — which doesn't need the upper house's approval because it's been introduced as a money bill — and fought the good fight were the MP from Cuttack, Bhatruhari Mahtab of Biju Janata Dal; and NK Premachandran, MP from Kollam, member (fittingly) of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.
It was Premachandran who pointed out yesterday (March 21) that the Finance Bill contained details that had no business being disguised as a money bill. "According to me, amendments to the RBI Act, and to the Representation of the People Act are in respect of issuance of the electoral rolls," he said, pointing out one specific example. "How an issuance of the electoral rolls fall within the taxation proposals over matters incidental to the taxation proposal? That is the question which I would like to know."
There were 27 more such questions that would be raised with the list of amendments to the Finance Bill that were circulated yesterday afternoon. I've seen the 30-page document that listed the amendments and I have enormous respect for all those who have decoded it. It is designed to confuse us lesser mortals. However, what is not confusing is that this Finance Bill is, as Premachandran described it yesterday, "backdoor legislation". Why? Take a look at the list of laws that have been amended in just this document (according to Premachandran, the original Finance Bill amended another 10-odd. I'll take his word for it):
- The Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956
- The Depositories Act, 1996
- The Companies Act, 2013
- The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947
- The Employees' Provident Funds & Miscellaneous Provisionst Act, 1952
- The Copyright Act, 1957
- The Trade marks Act, 1999
- The Railway Claims Tribunal Act, 1987
- The Railways Act, 1989
- The Smugglers & Foreign Exchange Manipulators (Forfeiture of Property) Act, 1976
- The Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999
- The Airports Authority of India Act, 1994
- The Control of National Highways (Land and Traffic) Act, 2002
- The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997
- The Information Technology Act, 2000
- The Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India Act, 2008
- The Competition Act, 2002
- The Cinematograph Act, 1952
- The Income Tax Act, 1961
- The Customs Act, 1962
- The Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985
- The Consumer Protection Act, 1986
- The Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992
- The Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993
- The Electricity Act, 2003
- The Armed Forces Tribunal Act, 2007
- The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.
Who knew everything from the Cinematograph Act to Airports Authority to NGT is a finance issue?
There's also the minor issue of the Finance Bill replacing Tribunals and from the look of things, it seems the Centre is basically going to decide all these appointments. Fun times for anyone who's facing the government as a litigant before one of these Tribunals.
Oh and Aadhaar, which is not mandatory according to the Supreme Court, but without which we will no longer be able to file taxes, and the absence of which will render our PAN cards invalid. The government reserves the right to exempt people from having Aadhaar, but for those of us without an 'in', it's time to hand over your personal data. The grand plan is to merge all the data that the government has on you with Aadhaar to make one database, which at one fell swoop lets those with access know everything from biometrics to religion to bank transaction to internet browser history. Is this the point where you tell me, "But I have nothing to hide." Neither do I, but that doesn't mean I lose the right to control who gets my data or my right to privacy. It's like this. We all know that all of us have genitalia, but that doesn't mean we go around naked from waist below. Why? Because we choose who we would like to flash and to what extent, if at all. Same difference with data.
Except of course I, and every other Indian who isn't exempted by the Centre, have lost my right to privacy and am left vulnerable to all sorts of attacks. The only saving grace at this point is that the Aadhaar is anything but systematically done, going by the accounts of Aadhaar being done without biometrics and for dogs, trees and chairs. Whether it can be used to pick out dissidents or targets during riots, who knows?
At one point today, this happened:
This, ladies and gents, was in Parliament. The country's Finance Minister admitted in Lok Sabha that he was ignoring the Supreme Court and forcing citizens to bow to a governmental will. Hooray for our democratic republic.
I've no idea what lies ahead for us. I hope it involves a law regarding online privacy at least, but I have to admit, I'm struggling to care because watching an elected government systematically clip democratic freedoms is...overwhelming.
Which is why I've decided I'm going to dust off the old 1984 and re-read it. Today at least, fiction actually feels more powerful and capable than parliamentary democracy. Maybe Bend Sinister after that, followed by The Life And Times of Michael K. I'm open to suggestions, by the way. If we're going to give up our liberties, let's at least have a good reading list to show for it.
So. Book club, anyone?