By Adv. Nikita Vaigankar
Recently on 7/7/2021, the news of Honorable Prime Minister reshuffling the ministries spread like wildfire. Our former Union Minister, Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad lost his ministry.
Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad’s tenure saw many ups and downs. He featured among top 20 influential world leaders in digital technology and e-government in 2018. He began his political career as a student leader in 1970s organising protests against Indira Gandhi government. He was even imprisoned during emergency.
In this case study, we are going to focus on the roles and responsibilities he played while delivering his service as a Union Law Minister during his tenure.
NJAC v. Collegium System
The innings of the tenure of Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad as a law minister under prime minister Modi in 2014, began with the signature reform legislation in NJAC (National Judicial Appointment Commission). NJAC aimed to replace the Collegium System of appointment of Judges. The Collegium system is considered as an Opaque system but at the same time, it is independent of the Executive interference.
NJAC Bill, 2014 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 11th August, 2014. The bill focused on the procedure to be followed by NJAC for recommending persons for appointment as Chief Justice of India, other judges of Supreme court, Chief Justice of High court and other Judges of High court. Apart from this, NJAC shall also be responsible for making recommendations for the transfer of Chief Justice and other Judges of the High court.
However, in 2015, a five judge bench of Supreme court in a majority of 4:1, struck down the said Bill and retained Collegium system on the basis that it would undermine and cripple the independence of Judiciary since it involved executive interference by involvement of law minister in appointing Judges and moreover, the judiciary will get caught up in the ‘web of indebtness’ towards the government.
On this decision of the Apex court, our former law minister Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad, expressed strong reservations against the SC Collegium system and questioned the logic behind its ruling. He said, “government is equal stakeholder in appointing Judges and its process. Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad also said that, ‘the Prime Minister of India can take the right decision in appointing the President, Vice President, Chief Election Commissioner, Comptroller and Auditor General, Army Chief, Air Chief and even Defence Minister. Moreover, he has the control over the nuclear button but he will make wrong decision in selection of Judges.This is very flawed reasoning given by the SC”.
Further, “A panel of senior supreme court judges appoints judges to higher judiciary is relatively not a part of basic structure of the constitution and that before the system was introduced, judges appointed by government, stood firm and declared the best of the judgements”, he said.
According to him, law ministry is not merely a post office forwarding Collegium recommendations. In succeeding years, after the bill was struck down, there was friction between executive and Judiciary and it was very much visible as law ministry objected to several recommendations for appointment of Judges on one or the other grounds. When questioned by supreme court, Shri. Ravi Shankar said that in 2016, a record of 126 judges’ appointment was done as compared to 70-80 appointments average in the last decade.
New Information Technology rules
“India will not compromise it’s digital sovereignty regarding social media companies who are willing to do business in India” – Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Recently, there was a chaotic situation that the social networking sites would be banned in India. The major reason behind it was enforcement of new IT rules in India which issued certain guidelines for the social networking sites which are active in India.
The Information Technology (guidelines for intermediaries and digital media ethics code) Rules, 2021
These rules are brought in force to prevent misuse of platforms like whatsapp/twitter, etc. These rules are to enable redressal mechanisms to its users to handle their complaints. The highlight of these guidelines is Rule 4(A) which states that, ‘social media platform need to appoint Chief compliance officer to be responsible for ensuring compliance with the acts and rules thereunder and shall be liable in any proceedings relating to third party information to make sure that due diligence was followed by the intermediary’. Preference is to be given to India based employees who can be appointed as Grievance redressal officer, compliance officer and nodal officer to coordinate with the government.
According to Prasad, these rules have not popped up suddenly rather they are the command by Parliament and demand of Civil Society followed by large scale consultations.
The logic behind implementing these rules is that, we are data economy as there are large number of users in India and their information shall not be accessible without their consent.
Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad had been locked in a bitter controversy with Twitter over new IT rules. Later, Twitter blocked him access to his account which ultimately was given access after a huge slamming.
He slammed twitter as it was not complying with India’s new IT rules. He said that when Indian companies carry out their business in US, they follow American laws. He further added, “if you have to do business here, you are welcome to criticize PM, all of us, but you have to obey India’s constitution and rules”.
Constitution and Secularism
“Framers of the Constitution did not include the word Secular in the Preamble as they knew that our soul was Secular at that time” – Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Last year in August, Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted an image saying that original document of constitution of India has a beautiful sketch of Lord Ram, Mata Sita and Laxman returning to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana and wondered, whether they would be allowed if constitution was drafted today. The answer is obviously a big ‘No’. By this, he suggested the extent of ‘minority appeasement’ and ‘pseudo secularism’ prevalent in the country. In a gathering of former chief justices, ex-diplomats, lawyers and constitutional experts, he stressed this view once again and also displayed scenes of Lord Krishna propounding the Gita to Arjuna at the Kurukshetra on the page of directive principles of state policy and also scenes from the courts of Ashoka and Vikramaditya.
Ayodhya ruling and Ravi Shankar’s contribution
In his tenure, a landmark was a resolution of a dispute over Ayodhya wherein a title of the land was awarded to Hindus, while giving an alternative five acre plot to Muslims to build a Mosque. Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad urged Supreme Court to fasten or fastrack the matter. He said, if Section 377, adultery and Sabrimala temple matters can be heard, if Supreme Court can open its doors at midnight for terrorist, then why can’t Ayodhya dispute be settled soon? His remarks came after Supreme court adjourned Ayodhya hearing due to non presence of one of the judge out of five judge bench on the scheduled hearing.
Stolen documents of Rafael Deal and Congress’ attack
Congress demanded resignation of Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad soon after the decision on Rafale Deal as Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed that the documents related to Rafale Jet Deal were stolen. Congress blamed him and another Union Minister for suppressing the documents. In this blame game, Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad even went to an extent stating that Shri. Rahul Gandhi has ‘Rafale Phobia’ and slammed him for lying shamelessly against Hon’ble Narendra Modi.
Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad remained very active on the front during is tenure. On legislative front, he introduced Muslim women (protection of rights of marriage) Act, 2019 that criminalized instant triple talaq in the parliament. The law was eventually passed in 2019. He also proposed establishment of All India Judicial Services, where the best minds would be appointed as judges after cracking competitive exams held by UPSC under the directions of the Supreme Court.
The tenure of Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad also saw setting up of National Judicial Data Grid and Digitisation of 15,000 trial courts. He also speculated for a better Digital India revolution which shall be beneficial for the poor and underprivileged and thus, to make it affordable. Over and above all this, Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad always took pride in repealing nearly 1,500 archaic laws that had been clogging the system for decades.
Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad leaves a legacy for his successor Shri. Kiren Rijiju, a current Union Law Minister of India that began with enactment of NJAC and covered wide range of controversies including Ayodhya and Rafale Deal as we discussed above.