Syntax error, the lousy programming bug troubled most of us during our initial exposure with the complicated computers. My Keralite Computer teacher would then explain the particular error as a wrong result on account of incorrect feeding of data to the processor.
I am today, out of blue, reminded of the forgotten term owing to happenings in my state, Sikkim. Here we are seeing a Tax error. The nature, similar to Syntax. Processor being the Supreme Court and wrong feeding of data by the Association of Old settlers and the State Government, past and present. The outcome with a grave error has hit Sikkim hard and how.
Nirmala Sitharaman had the nation’s attention on 01 February 2023 as she presented her 5th national budget on the trot. The number of tax slabs reduced from six to five. Increased tax exemption limit from ₹ 2.5 lakh to ₹ 3 lakh. The highest tax rate in personal income tax reduced to 39 per cent from about 47.
As the nation was busy making calculations on the savings that could be made on tax payments, Sikkim did not care a bit about Sitharaman and her complicated numbers.
Sikkim is a State whose original inhabitants are exempted from payment of Income tax. The business community or the left outs of Sikkim, too, were accorded the luxury of exemption owing to a Supreme Court judgement dated 13 Jan 2023. We are now a complete form-60 State.
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All looked fine till the judgement was pronounced. Sikkimese population has always been okay with the idea of granting tax exemption to families of plainsmen who were residing in Sikkim at the time of its merger with the Indian union. While the judgement was pronounced, Sikkim, led by its Government, was busy seeking votes in a national reality TV show for the singing prodigy, our own little Jethshen Dohna Lama. She did get the trophy home and as victory celebration was at its peak, the SynTax error came up.
The 118-page judgement had in it the submissions made to the court by the petitioners – the left out old settlers and various respondents, including the State and the Union Government.
Sikkim was taken aback to read that the petitioners had sought exemption with a plea that Nepali-speaking people of Sikkim, who roughly make about 80 percent of the population, were immigrants of a foreign country and if they were enjoying tax exemption, the petitioners should be extended the luxury too. The appeal for tax exemption was also made citing the principle of equality.
Sikkim was further shocked to understand that while the Government of India pleaded before the court that tax arrangement in Sikkim be left undisturbed and petition be dismissed, the Sikkim Government supported the petitioners with no efforts made to challenge the wrongful mention of Nepali-speaking Sikkimese as immigrants from a different nation nor any visible effort to prevent dilution of old laws protected under Article 371F.
The stand taken by the parties to the case may look surprising, but this has an explanation. Who likes to pay taxes? Who doesn’t like to save money?
The particular petition was filed in the highest court of the nation about 10 years ago. Most petitioners belong to the business community, tracing their roots to North and West India. Not less than 70% of businesses in Sikkim are owned and operated by them. Since the merger, the population of outsiders settling in Sikkim and engaging in businesses has only gone up. Their vote share is now substantial and they hold decisive numbers in many electoral constituencies. Unlike the ethnic communities, they are close knit and operate in strong cooperation among themselves.
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The characteristics of the petitioners mentioned above is not an attempt to portray them as villains. It is, in fact, an appreciation. Who wouldn’t make efforts to grow and get benefits? They have done just that. Their desire for monetary gains on account of tax exemption was always fine with the ethnic communities of Sikkim. Where they went wrong was in misrepresenting the history of the original inhabitants for their personal gains. That, to the people of Sikkim, is backstabbing.
Sikkim governments at the helm during the course of the 10-year legal battle have a lot of explaining to do. A government mandated to look after the State and it’s resources is expected to be thorough in whatever they do. In this particular case, they seem to have faltered real bad.
Politics is all about money. Particularly in Sikkim, where we have all witnessed how the involvement of cash in elections has increased over the years. Issues of corruption, substandard delivery of infrastructure and services, connivance of Government with corporates and enterprises hurting the resources, financial health and development of the State have been issues with a section of Sikkim population of late.
What seems to have transpired prima facie in the particular tax exemption case filed by the business settlers is that Sikkim Government never made an estimate or a study of the losses that would be incurred if at all the exemption was granted to the petitioners.
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A State, whose own income generation is only about 10% of its budgetary outlay, proposing to surrender the prime source of income on account of Income Tax from the largest resource-making segment for eternity, is no way a viable or a prudent decision. It’s a financial blunder.
Secondly, article 371F of Indian constitution allows special status to Sikkimese citizens and their families who were subjects of the Kingdom of Sikkim prior to 1975. There are laws governing land rights, government job recruitments and also exemption of Income Tax among other protective clauses. Extension of privileges exclusive to Sikkim Subject descendants to the petitioners in the present case is a clear dilution of article 371F.
This judgement has the potential to do a lot more damage to the Sikkimese identity. When the constitution itself has provided special status to the Sikkim Subjects, there can be no argument of equality.
The petitioners who call themselves “Old Settlers” had in fact been extended invitation by the then king of Sikkim to obtain Sikkim Subject certificates by surrendering their Indian citizenships. They had then opted to decline the offer. Sikkimese today feel that their attempts to now be equated with Sikkim Subjects for tax exemption is not justified, like a saying in Nepali – Chichi ko pani lob, papa ko pani lob (You can not have the cake and eat it too).
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The State Governments though, party to the legal battle, do not seem to have done enough to represent the people of Sikkim in true spirit. Their lust for vote bank and funding seem to have taken priority over sanctity of 371F and well being of the Sikkimese.
To make matters worse, a member of the business community, a beneficiary of the judgement, had been appointed the Additional Advocate General of Sikkim. The public feels that the Government in place withdrew from its responsibility and gave a free run to the petitioners to make, place, fight and win the legal case as they desired.
The innocent people of Sikkim today feel cheated by their own, their brothers – the old settlers and their Government.
The civil society of Sikkim, which has always been calm, has started to come together in protest of the recent developments. They have formed a Joint Action Committee that is growing in stature and strength each passing day.
Dharnas, call of bandh, effigy burning are now taking place in quaint peaceful Sikkim. Host of demands have been placed with the Government of the day, which is under immense pressure. The health minister of Sikkim just resigned, citing inaction of his own Government in the matter, the opposition too seeing an opportunity to make a dent is coming hard at them. The civil society looks unforgiving, uncompromising and headed for a long battle to restore their rights and privileges.
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Sikkim is warming up and could come to a boil if not handled well. The wrongs have to be made good. The Government has to use all its power, means and contacts to make amends to the mistakes made.
With taxes gone for good, Sikkim, a tourism-based economy, cannot tolerate unrest. It is the duty of the Government to make sure things are under control. The safety and security of the business community is also important. They need to be taken care of at this hour.
Meanwhile, this unpleasant development has provided an opportunity to the three ethnic communities, the Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis to wake up from their deep sleep and unite for good, setting aside their petty differences.
Mere expunging of the “foreigner” remark from the court records may not work now. Until the State management, accountability, legal framework and transparency is revisited and put in order, Sikkim may continue show SynTax error.
Deepak Tewari is a social commentator. Views expressed are personal to the author.
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