Between letter and spirit of law
A dark and ambiguous shadow has fallen between the letter and the spirit of law in Manipur. On the one hand, the government has been on a spree of silencing dissent in the media under the cover of the Covid-19 emergency, arresting at least five people for remarks on social media deemed critical of it. Much has been written about these arrests, prompting a coalition of nine human rights organizations to jointly appeal to the National Human Rights Commission to intervene. On the other hand, beyond these immediate knee-jerk responses, there has also been a more sustained and systematic crushing of the spirit of law by deliberate misinterpretation.
More than three years after several Congress MLAs defected to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the case of their disqualification remains unresolved. On May 8, the matter came up again before the tribunal of the Manipur legislative assembly Speaker, Y. Khemchand Singh, but the Speaker reserved his “preliminary observations” ruling that there is more to be heard from both sides. Earlier, on March 28, the Speaker had had to disqualify the first of eight Congress defectors, the former forest minister, Thounaojam Shyamkumar, after the Supreme Court intervened and banned the latter from continuing as minister or entering the premises of the Manipur legislative assembly. The apex court also urged the Speaker to do the needful before the court’s next review of the case on March 30.
Manipur’s assembly elections had yielded a hung verdict, with the Congress emerging as the single largest party with 28 MLAs in the house of 60. The BJP had 21 MLAs. Immediately after the election results were declared, Shyamkumar defected to the BJP. For reasons that were not fully explained, the governor, Najma Heptulla, broke tradition and invited not the party with the most MLAs but the BJP to stake claim to form the next government. The BJP managed to form the government enlisting the support of all non-Congress MLAs, leaving the Congress licking its wounds with 27 MLAs left in its camp. For his help, Shyamkumar was rewarded with a cabinet berth. In the weeks that followed, seven more Congress MLAs followed Shyamkumar’s footsteps and joined the BJP. Unlike Shyamkumar, however, the seven continued to sit in the Opposition benches but voted with the ruling party in assembly motions, including a Rajya Sabha election.
The Congress filed for action, first against Shyamkumar and then against the seven other deserters, under the 10th Schedule. In Shyamkumar’s case too, no tangible action was forthcoming even after the Manipur High Court reprimanded the Speaker, calling his inaction shameful. The Opposition then took the matter to the Supreme Court. In a January ruling, the court prodded the Speaker to dispose of the case. However, three months later, when it became apparent that the Speaker had no intention of heeding the advice, the Supreme Court dropped its bombshell, putting a ban on Shyamkumar using its extraordinary power under Article 142. Is the case of the seven other Congress defectors also headed towards a similar conclusion?
Few have explained this relationship between the letter and the spirit of law better than the mythologist, Devdutt Pattanaik. The author uses the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to illustrate this equation. In the age of innocence and truth that Rama belonged to, it was possible for him to insist on a strict adherence to the letter of the law in the faith that this would guarantee the spirit of the law. By contrast, in the age of experience and lost innocence that the Mahabharata was set in, crafty interpretations of the letter of law often created dichotomy between letter and spirit. Duryodhana is cited as an example. This prince often crushed the spirit of the law by using the letter of the law. After winning Draupadi in a dice game from the Pandava brothers, he decided to exercise his right of possession to humiliate her and his rival cousins by disrobing her in public. Significantly, Krishna is known for similar breaches of the letter of laws, but always to the end of preserving their spirit.
There is also another kind of law-breaker. These are people in power for whom what they say or do becomes law, both in letter and spirit. In Pattanaik’s own analogy, Ravana qualifies to be in this category. In the context of the current imbroglio in Manipur, it would be difficult to decide which of these analogies is the closest.
The author is editor, FPSJ Review of Arts and Politics