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April 2020- Our Laws must have a Gandhi's Talisman Clause

April 2020

Our Laws must have a Gandhi's Talisman Clause

Almost towards the end of his life, Mahatma Gandhi had said the following in a letter to a friend:

"...I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away....."

Called Gandhi's Talisman, this statement (test) must have served as a moral ethical compass for many individuals in their personal lives and decision making processes. Going beyond the level of the individual, it is time that we made this (or a suitably modified version of it) a mandatory clause in every piece of legislation and decision making done in India, from the Indian Parliament down to the Panchayat councils. The added clause could be along the lines “ has been examined as to whether the proposed law/order/decision would, directly or otherwise, impact adversely on the lives of the poor and marginalised sections of our country/state/district, and wherever it has been found to be the case, adequate remedial measures have been proposed and incorporated..”, or some appropriate modifications thereof. We already have precedents of such mandatory clauses like in the case of sanctioning of large projects where an environmental clearance clause is mandatory; one of the boxes that has to be ticked before it becomes law. Or compliance with the Coastal Zone Regulatory clauses while putting up constructions near the sea shores. Or clauses like “no animal was harmed in the process” during the use of animals in entertainment industry . Etc.

Despite the well known limitations and inadequacies of merely inserting a clause in a law, having the “Gandhi's Talisman Clause” as a part of the template for drawing up any legislation at any level could serve as a step towards reducing their (unintended) adverse impact on the poor and the vulnerable in our society who still exist in large numbers, much after Gandhiji gave his talisman. And even when the intentions are there, such considerations often get left out in the hectic processes of the actual crafting of the law which, beyond the broad goals and directions spelt out by the political leadership, is actually carried out by teams of lawyers, bureaucrats, economists, planners etc. Having the Talisman clause as an integral part of the template for detailed law making by such teams would ensure that such considerations do get incorporated in some manner and does not end up falling between the stools. While such clauses would certainly fall much short of what Gandhiji had wanted his talisman test to do for the poor, it may at least help to prevent much further harm coming to the poor and the dispossessed through the proposed law or decision!

Such a step has now become all the more imperative as large scale disruptions of the lives of the poor have been happening, caused not only by natural disasters like floods and droughts, but even by some of the laws and executive decisions of the governments that appear to be getting pushed through without adequate thought as to how their (un-intended) consequences maybe further putting the lives of crores of our poor in jeopardy. The media, organised or otherwise, supply us vivid images of the sufferings that the poor and dispossessed have to face every time something happens to upset the already precarious state of their social and economic existence, irrespective of what causes such disruptions. And this is doing no good either to our collective consciousness as fellow citizens or the image of our nation that is rightfully poised to become a major player on the global stage.

In a certain broader sense, the proposed step may be seen only as one of the many that have been taken, and would continue to be taken, to transform the Indian State from its oppressive and uncaring colonial origins to one that treats its people not as subjects but as citizens whom it guarantees certain minimal levels and conditions of existence. Thanks to the democratic foundations on which our state is founded and functioning (irrespective of however wanting it may appear in certain regards), and a certain memory of the Gandhian legacy that still seems to linger in parts of our society, significant gains have been made in this process of transformation of the Indian State. This proposal is just one more step in that direction

All our political parties and organisations, and the entire country, are certain to support such a legislation that will also bring a sense of unity and solidarity among us in these troubled times. And what better way to tell the world too that our recent yearlong celebration of Gandhiji's 150th birth anniversary was not just a ritual, and that we have definite answers to questions like “is Mahatma Gandhi relevant today?”!

C N Krishnan

April 27, 2020

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