As citizens of 21st-century India, the sensation of being mute witnesses to acts of demonstrable misgovernance has become all-too-familiar for most of us. But for some, our growing discomfort with representatives and institutions presents an opportunity for meaningful action. S.N. Shukla of Lok Prahari is one such individual. In May, he won a decade-long legal battle that led to five former chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh – N.D. Tiwari, Kalyan Singh, Rajnath Singh, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav – vacating official bungalows they continued to occupy long after they had ceased to be in the CM’s chair.
NGO Lok Prahari has also been in the forefront of seeking legal remedy against candidates convicted of criminal offences contesting elections and holding public office. In a conversation with The Wire, Shukla spoke about his journey post-retirement after a long career in the administrative service.
What led to the formation of Lok Prahari, and what were its aims?
When I retired from government service in 2003, a group of like-minded senior civil servants, who felt that we should assist the governments at state and Central level to provide governance as per the constitution, got together and formed the NGO Lok Prahari. N.M. Majmudar, an IAS officer of the 1957 batch of the UP Board of Revenue is our president, S. Venkatramani, who had topped the 1958 batch and was chairman in the Board of Revenue was our vice-president till he passed away recently. R.C. Tripathi, former secretary-general of the Rajya Sabha, SAT Rizvi, the former secretary in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, and I.C. Dwivedi, former DGP are some other senior members.
We also have people from other walks of life – a former district judge, doctor, journalist, architect and others. The only criterion we followed was that these should all be people of integrity, who had made a mark in their profession, and not be afraid to take a stand against the government if required, even when they were in service. Our chief patron was late R.K. Trivedi, my father-in-law who had served as chief election commissioner and later as the governor of Gujarat, and other patrons were G.N Chaturvedi, former DGP and S.N. Sahai, former judge of the Allahabad high court.
While the first aim of Lok Prahari was to assist governments in governance, we were also clear that should the government of the day provide governance not adhering to constitutional norms, we should challenge it through the path of judicial intervention.
So, what was the beginning of this legal journey?
Actually, our very first petition, filed in 2004, was about former chief ministers of UP holding on to their official bungalows even after they had left office. It took 12 years for us to win this case, in 2016, and another two years before the SC issued a 15-day deadline to vacate the official bungalows, which happened in May 2018.
I fought the case myself since I had completed my degree in law years earlier – on the insistence of my father. It suited us since we would not have had the means to engage any big lawyer, as our NGO runs only through the subscriptions of us pensioners. It was also important because probably no lawyer would have been able to articulate the issues on our behalf with the same commitment and conviction that we had in our case because they would not be an affected party. It helped that we had worked within the system and knew where the shoe pinches, so to speak.
You must have worked with all of the evicted CMs, other than Akhilesh. What has their reaction been?
There has been no acknowledgement or congratulations, which is only to be expected. But more happily, there have been no threats, either.
Lok Prahari has made important interventions in the area of elections and elected representatives. How did you decide to focus on this?
In 2005, we filed a petition in the SC to strike down sub-section 4 of Section 8 of the Representation of People Act. This was about members of parliament and legislatures continuing to retain their membership even after being involved in murder cases. The provisions of the law then were that any candidate who had been convicted for an offence punishable with more than two years of imprisonment could not contest elections. But the sub-section, which applied to their continuing as members, allowed them to continue in legislative office if they had filed appeals within 90 days of the conviction, and during the pendency of the appeal.
That same year, the Supreme Court had passed a judgement barring candidates convicted for more than two years from contesting elections. That gave me the idea to base my petition on the plea that the constitution provides for the criteria of becoming a member of the legislature. If they were barred from contesting, they should also be barred from continuing in office, and there could not be different criteria for candidates and for sitting members.
Lily Thomas, a senior advocate of the SC, also filed a petition on the same issue six months later under Article 14 of the constitution, and our two petitions were heard together. A two-judge bench of the SC ruled in our favour in 2013, upholding our plea that the constitution does not make a distinction between being a candidate, and being a member. The sub-section was therefore held to be ultra vires of the constitution and this was a real boost for us. It was this judgement that led to two RJD MPs including Lalu Prasad Yadav and one Congress MP being disqualified from the Lok Sabha.
Basically, over the years, our NGO began working on a single-point agenda. This was based on Rajendra Prasad’s address to the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949, in which he had said, “Whatever the constitution may or may not provide, the welfare of the country will depend upon the way in which the country is administered. That will depend upon the men who administer it. If the people who are elected are capable and men of character and integrity, they would be able to make the best even of a defective constitution. If they are lacking in these, the constitution cannot help the country.” We have tried to ensure that we support processes to bring men of integrity and character as elected representatives.
How do you see the present, when we seem to be moving away from more inclusive governance to a time when many seem to be getting excluded, whether it is by instruments like Aadhaar or NRC?
The situation is worrying, for sure. But it has to be sorted out by the people. As it is often said, people get the government they deserve. If they vote for those who never put the national interest above their personal or party interest, they will have to live with the results.
What about the bureaucracy? We have repeatedly seen how officers taking a stand on some issue are subject to repeated transfers. Doesn’t this make them operate in an atmosphere of fear?
A lot of changes have come into the bureaucracy. We were lucky to have served in better times, a time when our ministers valued their good officers. I was once summoned to CM Ram Prakash Gupta’s presence because my minister wanted me transferred. I said I was willing to go wherever I was sent, but I should be replaced by an officer of similar calibre. Not only did the CM not move me anywhere, but when it was time for a transfer, he had me replaced by the same man who had originally irked my minister. It was a time when we could speak and be heard. However, I see the present state of the bureaucracy as something they have themselves contributed to over the years. When officers begin to take decisions only to secure their personal interests, it leads to their political bosses getting the upper hand.
On the part of Lok Prahari, we have had a judgement in 2014 about enforcement of IAS cadre rules for providing security of tenure to all India service officers who are often shuffled around like a pack of cards, and we are also fighting in court for the Civil Services Boards to have independent members, not packed with members pliable to the government of the day. We are attempting to address issues of governance for the bureaucracy as well.
What do you think is the most important factor for a better functioning democracy in the coming years?
A wider dissemination of the ideas and principles of the constitution is the only way to bring about changes at the grassroots level. We need more groups building such an awareness, particularly among the youth. It is not just one Lok Prahari that we need, but many such groups in each district. While it is well known that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, we have to understand that eternal vigilance is also the price citizens must pay for democracy.
Scharada Dubey is the author of Monkeys in My Backyard (2012).