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Is Siddharamaiah trying to be the new Indira Gandhi?

The 19th of November of this year witnessed the birth centenary of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Coincidentally the late PM had a special link with the state of Karnataka, as it was from Chickmagalur that she initiated her journey to recapture power after being ousted in 1977.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and his government seem to be trying their utmost to make Indira Gandhi’s name a brand in the state. Following the launch of Indira Canteens, the Siddaramaiah government has decided to come up with Indira Schools with the CM claiming :

“The state government wants to name the newly established residential schools after Indira Gandhi”

This article however, is not concerned with the late Prime Minister’s legacy, but if one were to sum it up, it would be appropriate to say that she did a substantial lot to destroy important and fundamental institutions in India.

It is this legacy that the Karnataka Chief Minister seems to be following to the core. His time in power can be seen as the era in which attempts were made to forcibly take over important institutions by the government. In the name of being pro-people, the present state government has behaved more like an arrogant entity nursing an authoritarian fetish. Some recent incidents can highlight this tendency:

1. KPME Amendment Act

The Amended Karnataka Private Medical Establishments (KPME) Act was tabled in the winter session of the Karnataka Assembly in 2017 unilaterally without any discussion with doctors or anybody else from the medical community. As part of the amendment, the government wanted to create a grievance redressal cell where a zilla panchayat chief executive officer was given the powers of a civil judge. Instead of making the Medical Council Redressal Cell more effective, the government chose to empower an official without any medical expertise to monitor the malpractices of doctors. Further if the Grievance Redressal Cell ascertained criminal negligence on the doctor’s part, the accused could be given a prison sentence of six months to three years along with a hefty penalty.

In case the doctors are charged with criminal negligence, they would not even be allowed legal representation. Thus it would seem like the amendments placed doctors even below the level of depraved criminals. The KPME Act also aims to regulate fees in the medical sector which is charged at commercial rates. It seemed strange that the service costs were to be fixed by the government when the burden of running it was on private parties.

It cannot be denied that there is a need to monitor private medical establishments since healthcare is of paramount importance. But what is baffling is the exemption given to government hospitals even though Justice Vikramjit Sen’s report stated that the Act must regulate Government hospitals as well. The deterioration of Government hospitals was displayed in the recent tragedy in the SNR District Hospital in Kolar (incidentally the constituency of the state’s health minister K.R.Ramesh Kumar) which recorded 90 infant deaths since January this year.

Although most of the private medical establishments in the state were trying to help the government bring in much-needed safety measures, the autocratic State Government was hell-bent on persecuting the medical profession.

After the medical professionals rightfully registered their opposition to these despotic amendments, the government finally struck down the stringent parts of the bill. In midst of this confusion, the general public, whom the government claimed to help, suffered due to the absence of doctors.

The following question by the state’s former CM, H.D. Kumaraswamy, is an important one:

“Was it really necessary to cause such a ruckus with this bill?”

2. Karnataka Education (second amendment) Act,2017

Under the Karnataka Education (second amendment) Act, 2017, Section 5(A) was inserted into the Act of 1983. This section asks every school and its employees to take prescribed measures in ensuring safety and security of students which includes protection from sexual offences.

In addition, the new Act includes Section 112(A) which details the penalties for violation of Section 5(A). The amended Act also  prescribes who will decide if any violation has happened and the consequent penalties that should be imposed along with the penalties involved.

The violation and resultant penalties will be decided in an enquiry conducted by the District Education Regulatory Authority. The primary penalty includes imprisonment of the convicted employee for a minimum term of six months and a fine which may extend to one lakh rupees.

Any school found violating section 5(A) in the enquiry may have to pay a penalty which may extend to ten lakh rupees. The District Education Regulatory Authority can also recommend to the concerned authority for withdrawal of recognition or affiliation to such schools.

Here, the District Education Regulatory Authority refers to a body constituted under the Chairmanship of the Deputy Commissioner (who is head of the revenue department and has nothing to do with the education department) and also includes the Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Panchayat and the Executive Engineer as its members.

The DERA is also the authority designated for solving complaints related to fees charged by both aided and unaided private schools. The Karnataka Education (Second Amendment) Act, 2017, also seeks to impose a penalty of up to Rs. 10 Lakhs on schools that hike fees. Minister for Primary and Secondary Education Tanveer Sait has stated that the amended Act will be notified by the end of November.

In response, the Associated Managements of Government Recognised English Medium Schools in Karnataka (KAMS) along with other petitioners have challenged this Amendment in the Karnataka High Court contending that it overrides the central acts in relation to child safety like Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005 – Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000 and The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

Like the KPME Act, this amended Act also paves the way for the creation of a kangaroo courts led by those who are neither stakeholders nor shareholders. Interestingly certain Private Schools are run by trusts owned by the state’s influential communities like Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Through this Act the Government will have an opportunity to harass these communities for political gain.

On a side note let’s see the situation of education under the present government (1) (2) (3)

  • District Information System for Education (DISE) report for 2015-16 states that 122 government schools are working from dilapidated buildings and six with no buildings at all. Additionally, 123  do not have girls’ toilets, 563 have no electricity and close to 18,956 schools don’t have playgrounds.
  • The Government Schools Empowerment Committee report in September 2017 states that the number of dilapidated rooms in government schools has increased from 63,415 to 73,129.
  • As per the 2015-16 report of the District Information System for Education (DISE),767 schools in Karnataka have no teachers at all, while 5,503 have only one and 14,667 have just two.
  • Ahead of the 2017–18 academic year, a survey by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) officials identified 8,318 ‘out-of-school’ children across the state.

The Government seems to be under the impression that targeting private schools with a ruthless streak will easily solve their own shortcomings.

The Karnataka Government defended the harsh amendments it suggested in the KPME Act and Karnataka Education Act stating they were done to ensure welfare of the less privileged section of the society.

The CM here seems to have taken note of late Mrs. Gandhi’s campaign of Garibi Hatao Desh Bachao during the 1971 elections. One important step taken by Mrs Gandhi before the ‘Garibi Hatao’ campaign was the Nationalisation of banks in 1969. The ‘Bank Nationalisation’ move has been praised as it multiplied the number of bank branches in India making it accessible to the rural sections also. In the long-run it also paved the way for another kind of problem. In the words of the former Chief Economic Adviser Shankar Acharya:

While bank nationalization undoubtedly accelerated the spread of bank branches in India and curtailed the unhealthy nexus between industrial houses and some erstwhile private banks, it also spawned some of the well-known deficiencies of government banks. These included the rise of a bureaucratic/departmental culture in banking, the proliferation of lending at the behest of political masters, frequent need for recapitalization at taxpayers’ expense and the growth of new and unhealthy kinds of nexuses between politicians, bankers and industrialists. Hardly any independent financial expert would defend the current prominence of public sector banks in India today on the grounds of economic efficiency and financial prudence.

Like in Mrs. Gandhi’s case, will Siddharamaiah’s poorly thought out amendments inflict lasting damage to the state’s development in the long-run? 

3. Weakening the Lokayukta

At one point, Karnataka’s Ombudsman, that is the Lokayukta, was considered a model institution in tackling corruption across the state. Unfortunately, it is gradually fading into oblivion, courtesy of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), formed by the present State Government.

Under the Karnataka Lokayukta Act 1984, the Lokayukta and Upa Lokayukta can take up complaints of maladministration against government officials for investigation and then hand them over to the concerned officers. A police wing was assigned to help the Lokayukta with the  investigations. The policemen investigated the cases that were recommended by the Lokayukta and Upa Lokayukta.

So what was the need for creating the ACB? As per Karnataka’s iconic anti-corruption crusader and former Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde, the ACB’s aim is to “to remove the whole body, that is Lokayukta”, making it obsolete in the process. A look at ACB’s functioning will validate Hegde’s statement-

Unlike the Lokayukta, if the ACB receives any complaint against a government official, it must first seek the permission of the necessary government entity to start even basic procedure. An advisory board, headed by the state chief secretary, will also study the complaint. Then, in what can correctly be called a mockery of institutional autonomy, the Chief Minister himself would monitor the committee’s functioning. In short the ACB will report to the Chief Minister who will then judge the corruption cases involving him or his colleagues.

Not only the opposition leaders, but even senior Congress leaders B. Janardhana Poojary and B.K. Hariprasad have stated that the ACB would weaken the Lokayukta and subvert the fight against corruption. The public sentiment seems to be similar. In a state-wide survey carried out by Asianet Group and C4, about 55% of respondents stated that the Karnataka government was tainted by corruption and  thirty-nine percent of respondents believing that the state government had weakened the Lokayukta.

The Chief Minister’s “dedication” to tackle corruption can be seen in the appointment of former IPS officer M Kempaiah as his advisor. Kempaiah, has the distinct honour of being investigated by the Lokayukta, Directorate of Income Tax, Directorate of Civil Rights Enforcement, and even the Anti Corruption Bureau, for various corruption charges.

In case of handling law and order, the late Indira Gandhi had adopted more of an autocratic method. This was seen in her reaction to the Allahabad High Court’s verdict which stated that she won her Parliamentary seat by gross violation of the prevailing election laws and banned her from running for any office for six years. Instead of respecting the law, Indira Gandhi decided to hold democracy at ransom by declaring Emergency which imprisoned all her political rivals and critics, besides suspending fundamental rights. During this time she also filled the Supreme Court with Judges who passed judgements in her favour.

Although the CM has not yet gone to such an extent, the inherent disregard for the written law is similar, and apparent.

4. Distorting School Textbooks

In order to ensure that secularism is properly taught to school children, the famed Hinduphobe, Baraguru Ramachandrappa was appointed by the Siddaramaiah regime to chair the committee that will prescribe the contents of textbooks for children. The committee came out with textbooks filled with multiple factual inaccuracies.

Further, works that spoke about the state’s richness and about national integrity were removed. In their place, a recipe to incite inter-caste violence was provided by making fallacious claims, for example the drought in the state is blamed on yagnas organised by Brahmins in which too many animals were sacrificed and lots of milk and ghee were wasted.

This move reminds one of Indira Gandhi who appointed Nurul Hasan, a history professor with Marxist leanings, as her education minister. The same Nurul Hasan went on to establish the ICHR in 1972 with an aim to ‘direct’ academic works in order for them to fit the Marxist model. Most of those who ran the ICHR were Marxists or pro-Marxists, who further strengthened the Marxist roots of Indian secularism. Evidently, the Karnataka CM wants to surpass his idol by starting the brainwashing process at the school level itself.

5. Insulting Hindu Institutions

After coming to power, this government for some reason, seems to have identified Hindu religious institutions as one of its primary foes. This view is justified by the instances of the state administration’s unsuccessful  attempts to take over revered Hindu sites of worship like the Gokarna Mahabaleshwar Temple, Udupi Shri Krishna Temple, Shri Kshetra Dharamsthala and the Sahasralingeshwara Devasthanam.

If anyone doubted the CM’s contempt for Hindu institutions, it was visible to all in June of this year, when the then President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, visited the Udupi Sri Krishna Temple. The CM broke protocol by not accompanying him. The CM was invited to the temple on four previous occasions, including the ceremony of Sri Vishweshateertha Swamiji of Pejawar Math ascending the Paryaya Sarvajna Peetha, which took place on 18th January 2016, all to no avail.

If the public display of contempt and forced takeover attempts were not enough, this  Government compensated by inflicting physical damage on some temples. For the construction of Indira Canteens, the administration destroyed the wall of the historical Rameshwara temple and illegaly made use of the Banashankari Devi Temple’s properties. In another incident, even the hills housing the sacred Chamundeshwari Temple in Mysore were disfigured.

This list of activities can only be justified by the simple logic that the government was steadfast in its fidelity to ‘secularism’.

“Buddha is smiling”  was a phrase supposedly uttered by D.P Dhar, Indira Gandhi’s principal advisor and close friend, right after the successful nuclear tests in 1974. Under Siddharamaiah’s authoritarian rule, Buddha may no longer be smiling but we can certainly say that “Indira is smiling”.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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The author is a Bangalore-based commentator who mostly writes on socio-political and historical issues. He approaches these issues from a centre-right perspective. He has written for online portals like Swarajya and IndiaFacts.

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