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Constitution Review Panel recommendations
|The National Commission to Review the Working of Constitution (NCRWC) headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice MN Venkatchalaiah finally made its recommendations public when it submitted its report to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee on 31 March. The panel was set up on 22 February 2000 and was initially given a one-year term. Later its duration was extended twice.
When Mr Vajpayee set up the NCRWC to look into various aspects of the Constitution such as article 370, there was widespread concern among secular sections about the aims of the review. Given BJP's past noises, the decision aroused suspicion about the scope and substance of the changes sought. But to the relief of the country, the review panel has come out clean on every issue ranging from Article 370 to the contentious issues like uniform civil code and the right of naturalised citizens to hold high offices.
Surprisingly enough, twenty-two Constitution papers prepared and released by the Commission for public comment on various aspects of the Constitution maintained a discreet silence on religious and minority rights. It may be recalled that religious and minority rights have been incorporated (in the Fundamental Rights chapter, Articles 25 to 30) in the Constitution, and are beyond the purview of our country’s legislatures. However, the recommendations concerning Muslims suggest that these rights have not been tampered with.
The BJP was eager to see ‘uniform civil code’ becoming a part of the Constitution but has been cold-shouldered by the NCRWC. The right to religious freedom, which is one of the fundamental rights, has been made "non-suspendable." On the question of minorities, especially Muslims, the NCRWC has underlined the fact that Muslims in Indian Parliament are not adequately represented, and that the Union Government must see to it that something concrete is done regarding this major issue. Besides, the NCRWC has recommended reservation for Muslims in educational institutions with a special emphasis on Muslim girls.
What is now left of the protection of educational rights of religious and linguistic minorities has become a subject of considerable importance and debate. The situation has taken such an alarming turn that even unaided schools and colleges being run by the minorities are now being increasingly regulated even in matters of pure administration, and existing managements of such institutions are able to continue to function only on periodic doses of oxygen administered by courts in the form of limited interim orders.
More often it is said that many minority educational institutions have abused the privilege given to them under Article 30 of the Constitution. This is true in most of the cases though. According to the existing provisions of Article 30, minorities have a right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice; but they have no right to mal-administer them, and when they do, they can be dealt with under ordinary laws. However, in the name and under the guise of preventing mal-administration, the fundamental rights of minorities (religious and linguistic) are systematically and gradually being eroded, particularly by state legislatures and state administrators, without any effective check by the judiciary.
The NCRWC in its recommendations has maintained a studied silence on some issues. In the most glaring of the omission, the NCRWC has maintained silence about people of foreign origin occupying top constitutional posts, the issue which was most vociferously voiced by the the BJP. The ruling party had prominently raised this issue when Sonia Gandhi assumed Congress Party presidentship, and was some years back almost on the verge of becoming Prime Minister. However, it can only be inferred that by skirting this most important issue, the NCRWC must have kept in mind the case of the current Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani who was a Pakistani citizen till the year 1957.
Some good proposals have been put forth by the NCRWC in its recommendations, e.g., preventive detention should not exceed six months under any circumstances. Taking the constitutional issue of Fundamental Rights into account, the NCRWC has enlarged its scope to specifically include the freedom of the Press, the right to elementary education, and the right to privacy. The report has recommended that any person charged with a crime punishable by more than five years should not be allowed to contest an election. The report has also said that Article 356 should be used only in "difficult circumstances" like if subversive activities are in full swing in a state. q
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