As I write this, my home state Sikkim is far from peaceful. It is not often that the state sees such large scale protests on an issue that, at first glance, seems innocuous. But delve a little deeper, and you soon understand the anger and frustration that has brought Sikkim residents on their feet.
Note that I said Sikkim residents, not Sikkimese. Why? Because as per a Supreme Court judgement on January 13, the term ‘Sikkimese’ no longer exists.
But first, allow me to explain what conspired on January 13. As I was about to head home after a tiring day at work, I was informed that the Supreme Court had issued its judgement on a decade-old case related to tax filing for old settlers in the state.
The apex court struck down the exclusion of Indian settlers who had permanently settled in Sikkim before 26.04.1975 from the definition of “Sikkimese” in Section 10(26AAA) of the Income Tax Act, 1961. The apex court also said that in “Provision to Section 10(26AAA) in so far as it excludes from the exempted category, “a Sikkimese woman, who marries a non-Sikkimese after 01.04.2008” is hereby struck down being ultra vires to Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution of India.
For the uninitiated, Section 10(26AAA) covers the income of a Sikkimese individual arising either in Sikkim or by way of dividends or interest on securities. As per the act, it is not to be included in total income for tax calculation. To read the story on the judgement, click here.
Now, let me make it clear: the protests are not about the judgement, or about whose side the Supreme Court took. The protests are because of the fine print. Within a day, Sikkim residents realised that the Sikkim Government supported the petitioners, and the wrongful mention of Nepali-speaking Sikkimese as immigrants from a different nation. Worse, the state government made no visible effort to prevent the dilution of old laws protected under Article 371F.
How did a tax-related judgement end up describing who is a resident and who is an immigrant? How did the state government forget the impending time bomb? Well, there are many reasons, but let us look back to January 13. The state government was busy celebrating a reality TV star, but the moment they realised their faux pas, they did what comes naturally to every political party these days: blame the opposition, hit the streets to protest (against who? I do not know) and finally, almost as an afterthought, file a review petition against the order.
This was two weeks after the order, mind you. Why did it take them so long? Well, one could say that the state government was not paying attention because no one was asking for it until the opposition parties started pointing out the issue. Hours before, Bhaichung Bhutia had asked the same of the state government. “The government has a responsibility to take up the issue. Even if the verdict is passed, they can appeal. It might be a passing remark that is given, we are not saying change the verdict but change and object to the term and tag used. It’s a wrong tag being laid upon the Nepali community,” Bhutia had said.
What I cannot understand, however, is the response of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), the party in power, and the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), which was in power before the SKM. I have no interest in listening when one party blames the other for mistakes.
Let us see what is happening here: the petition was filed in 2013, and the then government did not bother checking or challenging what the petitioners said. Over the next decade as the case went on, power changed hands, and now Sikkim was under new leadership. Yet, the present government and their Attorney General did not do much in this matter. Now, both parties are blaming each other and their workers, ever ready to protest and ransack at the drop of a ha,t acting like they had no idea how their party was involved in such a faux pas. Amid all this, the Association of Old Settlers, who filed the petition, contended ‘not a single instance of the word Nepalese was used from our end.’
“There is not a single instance that the word Nepalese was used from our end, special care and instruction were given from our end to secure justice by not hurting the sentiments of any community or labelling anyone foreigner,” their statement said.
I want to ask the party workers: who are you protesting against? What are you protesting for? When the state government has talked about a review petition, what would your protest achieve?
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I will also say that while I am shocked, I am not surprised at the lack of response from the Central government. One thing the BJP has made clear in nine years of its reign is that when elections come, nothing else matters. Right now, the BJP leaders want you to think that they will not sleep until Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura all vote for the BJP. So engrossed is the party leadership in elections that despite being a ruling ally in Sikkim, neither the Home Minister nor the Prime Minister has bothered to even say the most obvious things about the Sikkim issue.
There is no doubt that the ‘mistakes’ in the judgement must be rectified at the earliest. But before that, to all those reading this column, please stop using this issue for cheap political gains. Both the past and the present governments are guilty here of not doing their job. The state must now find a solution to the problem, not see this as yet another reason to divide a state that has worked so hard at integrating its population. But if only political parties cared about the people and not party gains.
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