Between the letter and the spirit of law, there often falls a long shadow. Nowhere was this more visible in recent time in Manipur than in the ongoing case for disqualification of Forest and Environment Minister, Th. Shyamkumar, or should this title now be “former” minister considering the sensational interim ruling by the Supreme Court on March 18 that forbade him to either enter the Manipur Assembly complex or to continue as minister. Shyamkumar, it may be recalled was elected on a Congress ticket from the Andro Assembly constituency in the March 2017 election. The verdict in that election was hung, with 28 of the Assembly’s 60 seats going to Congress and 21 to its nearest rival BJP. Congress therefore needed the support of three MLAs from outside the party to reach the majority mark, while the BJP needed 10 to reach the same mark. However, even as the state waited for the parties in the fray to work out post-poll alliances in the contest to form the next government, Shaymkumar switched sides and joined the BJP camp. For reasons inadequately explained, the Governor of the state, Najma Heptullah, then broke tradition and invited not Congress which was the single largest party, but BJP to stake claim to form the government. The latter managed this, enlisting the support of practically all the rest of the MLAs, leaving the Congress sorely licking its wounds with just 27 left in its camp. Shyamkumar was subsequently rewarded with a plum cabinet portfolio of Forest and Environment Ministry. Expectedly, the Congress filed for action by the Assembly Speaker against the former minister as per the provisions of the 10th Schedule which defines defection and penalties for the offence. In the months that followed, seven more Congress MLAs followed in the footsteps of Shyamkumar and joined the ruling camp.
This was three years ago but no tangible action has been forthcoming, even after the matter reached the court of law –Manipur High Court first and then Supreme Court. The HC severely reprimanded the Speaker for this inaction, even calling it shameful but left the matter of disqualification to the Speaker’s tribunal. The SC too initially nudged the Speaker to swing into action and dispose the case as per the provisions of the 10th Schedule at the soonest, but three months later when it became apparent the Speaker had no intention of honouring the SC advice, the court dropped the March 18 bombshell, directing Shyamkumar be banned from entering the premises of the Manipur Assembly and for him to be removed from ministership, using the rarely used extraordinary power given to the SC under Article 142 of the constitution. The SC also indicated it will be waiting for the Speaker’s verdict before the matter comes up before the court again on March 30. It remains to be seen how things unfold by this date.
One thing is certain. This entire episode is disgraceful. What has come up for question is the manner in which not just the spirit of the law but also the letter of the law have been trifled and made irrelevant. From this standpoint, the SC’s harsh interim ruling of March 18 can be seen as an effort to bring the letter of the law to be a guarantee of the spirit of the law as it should be. In this particular case, the spirit of the law is to ensure no defection by an MLA is allowed without penalty. The 10th Schedule, or the Anti-Defection Law, is the legal means to arbitrate such perceived breaches of this sense of order and justice by MLA defection in democracy’s power struggle. In the present case, few will dispute that the letters of the 10th Schedule have been literally and wilfully divested from the spirit of the law. This being so, when the spirit of this law is violated, the law itself is either silenced or its loopholes used to ensure defectors face no penalty.
Few have explained this relationship between the letter and the spirit of law better than well-known Indian mythologist, Devdutt Pattanaik, author of several books on Indian mythology, including most relevantly to this article “Myth=Mithya: Decoding Hindu Mythology”. Very briefly, Pattanaik uses the Hindu mythologies of Ramayan and Mahabharat to illustrate this equation. In the age of innocence and truth that Ram belonged, it was possible for Ram to insist on strict adherence to the letter of the law in the faith that this will always be in the interest of the spirit of that law. But even here, as those who are familiar with this the story would know, there were problems, as for instance in Ram allowing the test by fire to determine the fidelity of his wife Sita. By contrast, in the age of experience and lost innocence that the Mahabharat was set against, a clear dichotomy between the letter and the spirit of law had become the reality. Hence there were those who broke the spirit of the law without even disowning the letters of the law. Duryadhan is the example of such violators. This prince is not known for breaking the letters of law but often crushed its spirit even while adhering to the law. After winning Draupadi in a dice game from the Pandav brothers, he for instance decided to exercise his right of ownership over her to vengefully humiliate her and his rival cousins by disrobing her in public. When this dichotomy becomes the norm, God then manifest as somebody who would go to the extent of breaking the letters of a bad law to ensure the spirit of the law is intact. Hence, Krishna intervened and ensured that Draupadi’s humiliation never happened. Again, those familiar with this mythology would know that Krishna is known for similarly breaking the letters of many more laws, but always for the end of preserving their spirit. The way forward in these cases, is to work for reformations of the letters of the laws in question so that they continue to serve the purpose they were meant to – be the guarantee for the spirit of the law. Those in Manipur should not find this hard to comprehend. The protest against a bad law called AFSPA can be seen in the same light. The AFSPA is law, but this law breaks rather than guarantees justice.
There is also another kind of law breaker. These are people in power for whom neither the letter nor the spirit of law matters. For them, what they say and do becomes law, both in letter and spirit. No marks for guessing that these are what despots are made of. In Pattanaik’s own analogy, Ravan qualifies to be in this category. In the current circumstance in Manipur, it would indeed be difficult to decide which of these analogies is closest to what are happening in the state. Our fear is, the understanding of power both by those in power as well as their subjects is closer to what Pattanaik’s Ravan understood power to be.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author