19 MARCH 2016
Undermining the SYL Canal
The Punjab Assembly continues to thumb its nose at the law of the land. A day after a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court ordered status quo on land marked for the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal, the Assembly unanimously resolved that it cannot be allowed to be built. It is not clear whether this is an emotive cover for the Punjab government to wind down the efforts to change the facts on the ground by even levelling the canal. But the events of the past week frame political adventurism of an order that this country has not witnessed in a long time. Supported by a political consensus that brings the Opposition Congress and even the Aam Aadmi Party on board the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government’s unilateral repudiation of inter-State agreements, they put the onus on the Centre to reiterate the redlines that cannot be crossed in a federal set-up. On Monday, the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (Rehabilitation and Re-vesting of Proprietary Rights) Bill 2016, seeking to return land acquired for the canal’s construction to the original owners free of cost, and thereby completely destroy the work (still incomplete after more than three decades) to channel to Haryana its duly allotted share of the waters of the Ravi and the Beas. Even though the Governor’s assent has not come for the Bill, work on levelling the land, scooping earth and flora along the canal began at fever pitch, causing ecological damage and wiring up the original owners into frenzied activity.
The origins of the crisis go back to 2004, when the State passed the Punjab Termination of Agreements legislation. With this, it reneged on its upper-riparian responsibility to share water with Haryana through the SYL Canal. The matter went to the Supreme Court, and hearing finally started this month. The 2004 abdication has now been aggravated by wilful destruction of parts of the canal, on which hundreds of crores of rupees have already been spent. The earlier effort to reap political dividend by raising the spectre of Punjab’s fields turning barren has been topped by exciting hopes on the possibility of farmers getting back lost land. All political parties are on board. The 2004 law was passed under Amarinder Singh’s Congress government. The 2016 Bill has been guided by Parkash Singh Badal’s SAD-BJP government. Twelve years ago, the Congress-led government at the Centre refused to read the Riot Act to a Congress Chief Minister. Today, a BJP-led Central government is keeping silent at the outrage fomented by its own coalition in Punjab. Inter-State water disputes tend to be particularly emotive, and thereby amenable to populist politics. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, most issues relating to the SYL Canal had been sorted out. Indeed, by the 1990s, much of the construction of the 212-km-long canal had been completed in Punjab. It is against this groundwork that the Punjab government-led destruction and repudiation of a federal agreement must be squarely condemned.
Politics of intimidation
It is far from clear where in the rule book there is sanction to suspend a member of a legislature for allegedly outraging the nationalist sentiments of colleagues. But as things stand, Waris Pathan, a member of the Maharashtra Assembly, is suspended for the remainder of its Budget session for refusing to chant along to “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. The sequence of events that led to his punishment is unbecoming of a legislative chamber. Mr. Pathan belongs to the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. Imtiyaz Jaleel, the party’s other MLA, participating in a debate on the Governor’s Address, criticised the State government’s plans to build memorials for historical and contemporaneous political leaders, including Shivaji, B.R. Ambedkar and Bal Thackeray. Questioning the expenditure, he sought funds for public goods such as hospitals, when a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA cornered him on his loyalties and demanded that the AIMIM’s two MLAs chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Mr. Pathan said he would not, drawing an uproar from MLAs not only of the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena coalition, but also of the Opposition Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. Following some threatening slogans, Minister of State for Home Ranjit Patil moved a resolution to suspend Mr. Pathan for the rest of the session, and it was carried through unanimously. Even by the recent standards of intimidation within some legislatures, the Maharashtra Assembly’s action is a dangerous one and must be contested legally if it is not to become a precedent that would further hollow out India’s constitutional freedoms.
The suspension of a member for asserting his freedom of expression is a particularly spectacular low for democracy. India’s legislatures enjoy extraordinary privileges to secure the freedom of expression, drawn from the British House of Commons’ historic struggle to win autonomy from the Crown. Over the decades they have absorbed dissent against the Indian Republic far more potent than this insistence by Mr. Pathan that he be allowed to choose how to word his loyalty to India. Indeed, it is a matter of pride for Indian democracy that not only have legislatures accommodated different ideas of nationhood but they have emerged the stronger for that. Wednesday’s events therefore must be seen for the alarm that they represent — for the substitution of a new politics of intimidation in place of India’s more organic politics of persuasion. If politics is going to fall in place around binaries forced by slogans such as “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, with ideologues like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s patriarch marking deeper lines in the sand, and giving smaller political groups such as Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM more polarising means to profess their challenge to a majoritarian consensus, the polarisation can only be fought from the middle ground on the basis of basic democratic values. That political parties see little value in holding this ground must be cause for foreboding — about the “Bharat Mata ki Jai” touchstone migrating out of the State legislature.