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With the law above

Yogesh Pratap Singh and Sanjeeb Panigrahi | New Delhi |

Be you ever so high the law is above you, Lord Denning would proclaim enthusiastically, often while interpreting “the Law” in idiosyncratic ways that its makers never intended. Recent TV reports covering elections of UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand and the Panchayat election in Odisha portrayed the rising number of VIPs on roads, in cordoned off streets, in queue for casting votes. The media also highlighted the diversion of police strength to VIP security through banner headlines such as 1,200 per cent rise in cop cover for VIPs in city of Mumbai over 5 years.

Even many of our self-righteous ministers lead long convoys as they pass through, bringing traffic to a halt and creating miles of traffic jams. This goes against the fundamental precept of democratic governance i.e. equality of all citizens before the law regardless of status, gender, age, race, ethnicity, religious or political beliefs and affiliations, caste, class or economic status. The VIP culture in India is inherently undemocratic and undermines Rule of Law embodied in Article 14 of the Constitution.           

The VIP culture in vogue in the political/administrative sphere has reinforced a kind of social stratification and promoted feudalism that hurts the collective psyche of citizens. Even in the most developed countries of the world the State protects only a selected few like the constitutional functionaries and the rest have to manage their own security.
In our country even the kin of political leaders, ministers, spiritual gurus, top bureaucrats and even the criminals are extended VIP healing. Where there is hopeless shortage of policemen on the ground for law and order problems, thousands of policemen are engaged in VIP security at the expense of the security of the common man.

According to a newspaper report, more than 47,000 policemen are engaged in protecting our VIPs and VVIPs. There are on an average three policemen engaged in the protection of one VIP and in cases of VVIPs the number is far more. Ironically, there is one policeman for about 700 ordinary citizens. The common man pays the bill for the security of the so-called VIPs and VVIPs while he himself remains exposed to so many types of crimes and remains unsafe in the street, public places and at times in his own house. Deeply embedded in our political and social culture, this has become an endemic problem.

Providing security and use of beacon lights are being misused recurrently which is against the spirit and ethos of equality. The Governments both at the Centre and in states are worried about the rising burden on the exchequer created by the so-called VIP culture and the protection they are forced to provide. But to tinker with it would be like touching the hornet’s nest as so many political leaders are the direct beneficiaries of the VIP culture. There seems to be genuine lack of political will to end this evil system.

The Apex Court in Abhay Singh v. State of U.P. (red beacon judgment) deprecated the misuse of red beacon on the vehicles of public representatives and civil servants and laid down certain guidelines which are persistently being violated.

Right to Know

Every citizen has the right to know the raison d’être behind protecting the so-called VIPs when many of them are criminals and kin of big political leaders. Every citizen is indignant because of the system of stopping traffic due to VIP convoys. Even ambulances carrying serious patients are not allowed to go. Flights get delayed due to the late arrival of VIPs whereas common citizens are denied entry into the airport even if they are one minute late.
An Air India plane in Delhi was delayed for hours allegedly because the airline was eager to help out some VIPs. In yet another incident, on 24 June 2015, in a flight from Leh to Delhi, three passengers, said to be an Indian Air Force officer and his family, were asked to leave the plane when one MOS, Ministry of Home Affairs and Deputy CM of Jammu and Kashmir were to be accommodated on the flight. So many other instances are available. This gives rise to a common question, as to why our money is being utilised to make some people superior and offering them official status differentiator.  

It is proven that Article 14 of the Constitution forbids class legislation but permits classification which rests upon reasonable grounds of distinction. In order to pass the test for permissible classification two conditions are required to be fulfilled: (1) the classification must be founded on an intelligible differentia which distinguishes persons or things that are grouped together from others left out of the group, and (2) the differentia must have a rational nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the statute in question.

The VIP treatment to certain constitutional offices like the President of India, the Prime Minister, the Vice-President, the Governors of States, the Chief Ministers, the Chief Justice of India etc. is indubitably founded on intelligible differentia but other extra-constitutional and extra-legal VVIPs and VIPs will not pass the test of reasonable classification. While there is so much clamor and murmur in the Indian landscape against the VIP culture, no statutes or rules carry any definition of the term “VIP” or “VVIP.”

The “Warrant of Precedence” issued by the Ministry of Home is often cited as the reasons for the VIP treatment to certain people. But Note 1 clearly states: “The order in this Table of Precedence is meant for state and ceremonial occasions and has no application in the day-to-day business of the government.”

Separate facilities for VIPs, preferential plot allotment to VIPs under discretionary quota, VIP rooms in Railway station, airports, separate routes for VIPs, separate seats for VIPs, separate entitlement and privileges for VIPs and so on would not pass the test of reasonable classification by elongating any liberal and creative rule of interpretation. In a globalised world faced with similar problems of human misery, currently or historically, comparisons are inevitable. If we do so, we find perhaps no parallel in the world democracies.    

The obnoxious arrogance of power with huge motorcade is a blow to our republicanism and erodes our constitutional conscience. The deep seated feudal culture of public servants seems to be the bane of our public administration and results in lack of sensitivity, efficiency and accountability in public service. With such a wall of separation from the so-called VIPs, a common citizen feels demeaned and realizes that he is a lesser human being. Hence, another ideal of the constitution—ensuring human dignity to all – stands desecrated.

What is at stake here is not government, the governors or governance, but the very process of human and economic capital building and accumulation – to meet India’s international commitment at the UN and to achieving the millennial goals through sustainable development. Ignorance is perilous and ignorance that demoralises dignity of citizens is inhuman and makes the very ethos of our Constitution tremble. We therefore, urge the governments to define, refine and confine the horizons of VVIP concept.  

The authors are, respectively, Associate Professor of Law at the National Law University, Odisha and an advocate.