Listen to this article:
New Delhi: On the day the stipulated six-month period within which the Nagaland government was to appoint a Lokayukta for the state was to expire, the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party-Bharatiya Janata Party (NDPP-BJP) regime amended the Nagaland Lokayukta Act, 2017 – to allow itself a year to keep the post of the anti-corruption ombudsman vacant.
On August 3, the first day of the Monsoon Session of the state assembly, state Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, also the founder of the NDPP, moved the Nagaland Lokayukta (Amendment No.2) Bill, 2021. The three-day-long session of the 60-member house, before adjourning sine die on August 5, passed the Bill – thus making official that the anti-corruption watchdog in the state could remain headless for a year.
In August 2020, the Rio government had gone to the Supreme Court with the plea “to ensure that the institutional integrity of the post of Nagaland Lokayukta and the spirit” of the Nagaland Lokayukta Act, 2017 “are preserved”. The provocation for it was that the then sitting Lokayukta – a retired chief justice of Meghalaya high court, Uma Nath Singh – had cited COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and had told the state government that he would function from his residence in Delhi. The state government also told the apex court then that his powers be stripped as he had made “unjust and arbitrary” personal demands.
The state, by law, cannot remove a Lokayukta on its own, which pushed it to knock at the Supreme Court’s door for a decision.
By then, Singh had courted another controversy. On the eve of his retirement as the chief justice of Meghalaya high court, he passed an order that the government should grant him Z category security after retirement. The Supreme Court later overturned that order.
Hearing the Nagaland government’s plea, a three-member Supreme Court bench led by then Chief Justice S.A. Bobde had stated in January that Singh was “demeaning” the office of the Nagaland Lokayukta by demanding to discharge his constitutional duties in the north-eastern state while sitting in New Delhi.
With the apex court’s observation clearly not going in his favour in this case either, senior advocate Vikas Singh, on behalf of Uma Nath Singh, on February 1, presented a written statement to the bench offering his resignation from the post. Singh had also told the court that “unpleasant circumstances” and “hostile environment” were the reasons to quit from his post.
The Supreme Court, nevertheless, directed the Nagaland government to accept the resignation immediately. With security granted by the apex court, Singh flew to Kohima to pack his bags and tender his resignation which was accepted on February 5, thus ending an uneasy two-year-long relationship between the Lokayukta and the Rio government.
His resignation also meant that the Nagaland government was to appoint a new Lokayukta within six months, or by August 5 – the day the Act was amended to give more time to the NDPP-BJP government to keep it vacant.
“This is so sad. The government compelled the former chief justice of Meghalaya to retire from the post and now we hear that an amendment has been brought so that the post can be kept vacant for a longer period. The job of a Lokayukta is to check corruption; the institution is to watch over not just the bureaucrats and various departments but the cabinet ministers too,” said Kezhokhoto Savi, president of the Nagaland Voluntary Consumers’ Organisation (NVCO).
NVCO, along with civil society organisations like Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation (ACAUT), was instrumental in getting an anti-corruption ombudsman in the state.
Savi told The Wire, “The issue is particularly important because the rate and level of corruption charges in Nagaland is very high, be it in the government’s employment sector or in its financial transactions. Only this week, we have media reports highlighting that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, after an audit, had expressed grave concern over recurrent cases of excess and fraudulent withdrawal in the finance department.”
Joel Naga, an anti-corruption activist who had headed ACAUT till February last year, too expressed his dismay at the non-appointment of a Lokayukta in the state. “I am yet to carefully read the amendments made to the Act, only read media reports so far. We had worked hard to get a Lokayukta appointed in the state in 2017-18. Nagaland, with so many instances of corruption, particularly needs a strong Lokayukta. The earlier one didn’t quite help himself to keep the post. In hindsight, I would say the state government took advantage of it and got him removed.”
In 2020, Joel had resigned from ACAUT to form a regional entity hinged on the anti-corruption plank, Rising People’s Party (RPP), last year. He told this correspondent, “We are a registered party. We plan to contest the next assembly elections in Nagaland on the anti-corruption plank.”
He further said, “Even though people are tired of corruption in Nagaland, most civil society organisations of the state don’t legally take up those issues. Even when the Lokayukta was there, there were a few minor cases which he had disposed of.”
“So, from the RPP platform, we plan to take it up; we will file cases from next week onwards,” he added.
In the absence of a Lokayukta in the state, the Upa-Lokayukta has been discharging the duties since March 2021. Significantly, the Upa-Lokayukta, Mangyang Lima, is a political appointee.
Like Joel Naga and Savi, Mar Longkumer, an anti-corruption activist formerly associated with ACAUT, also raised the issue of the state government “violating the essence of the Act” by appointing a ruling party member as the Upa-Lokayukta. “Being a political appointee, he is clearly not qualified for the post. The rules have been violated by the state government,” said Longkumer.
“Mangyang Lima, the Nagaland Upa-Lokayukta, was appointed when Justice (retd.) Singh was there (in April 2019). The problem is, he is not just a politician but belongs to the ruling NDPP too and had contested the last assembly elections (from Arkakong constituency in Mokokchung district) which defeats the very purpose of keeping a watch over the government of the day,” stated Savi.
On August 5, NVCO issued a statement prodding the public to seek from the state government an upright person “having the heart willing to truly curb corruption for the love of the society”. It also warned the state government to not commit the same mistake (as in the case of the Upa-Lokayukta) while selecting a person for Lokayukta “as it would amount to playing with the highest institution in the state.”
Soon after Lima was appointed by the Rio government, the opposition Naga People’s Front (NPF) had objected to it. There were also allegations against Lima’s involvement in the construction of a new high court building at Meriema which was facing a CBI inquiry. In 2018, the Gauhati high court had asked the CBI to probe into the case.
In its defence, the Rio government had then said that Lima was picked for the post because of his “unblemished track record and integrity as a legal luminary and a former principal district and session (court) judge.”
Three years later, in July, the NPF had taken a resolution to join the NDPP-BJP government, leading Savi to point out, “This is an added issue now. The government could pass such an amendment to the Lokayukta Act also because there is practically no opposition in the House.”