Facing criticism from various sections, the Vasundhara Raje government referred The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2017, which seeks to muzzle the press and shield judges and government servants from investigation into any wrongdoing, to a select committee on Tuesday, a day after it was tabled in the House. The BJP leadership in Delhi is learnt to have prompted Raje to refrain from pushing the Bill. Sources said a top BJP leader told Raje on Monday that the provision which curbs freedom of the media was “constitutionally unsustainable” and likely to fall foul of the Constitution.“One could argue in favour of or against the provisions for prior sanction before prosecution, but the provision curbing freedom of media was constitutionally unsustainable. In fact, that entire provision curbing freedom of media in the Rajasthan legislation was beyond the reasonable restrictions requirement under the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution,” said a source who was aware of the BJP leadership’s message to its government in the state.
Sources said a section of the BJP leadership was taken by surprise by Raje’s move. On Monday, the state government tabled the Bill in the House to replace The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, promulgated on September 6 by Governor Kalyan Singh. But in the evening, Raje called senior ministers to her residence and is learnt to have asked them to have a “rethink” on the Bill. Sources said it was at this meeting that the decision to send the Bill to a select committee was taken. Speaking to reporters outside the assembly today, senior Cabinet Minister Rajendra Rathore said that although the Ordinance may be in effect, “the government’s desire will be to not act upon it… that no action is taken through the Ordinance.” He said the Ordinance would automatically lapse six weeks from Monday, when the Bill was tabled.
“There was some confusion among the press, which thought that the government is trying to curtail its expression. So the Chief Minister sincerely considered all such points in her Monday evening meeting and directed the ministers to send it to a select committee,” said Rathore. He said the government wasn’t caught on the “back foot”, but it has a “big heart” and is acting on its “democratic values” by considering diverse voices.The select committee will have 15 members, including Opposition MLAs, and will submit its report in two months after a “comprehensive review”. The report will be tabled in the next assembly session, which is likely to be in February.
As per rules, the select committee considers the provisions of the Bill and can also obtain the views of experts. If a member disagrees with the decision taken by the committee, he can record his dissent. The report of the committee, along with the dissent note, is published in a gazette and its copies are circulated to members of the House. The House can refer the Bill to the select committee again, but it can do so only once. The minister of the concerned department is the ex-officio chairman of the committee — in this case, it is Kataria. In its current form, the Bill prohibits investigation without prior sanction against “a Judge or a Magistrate or a public servant” for any “act done by them while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of their official duties”.