‘Cost-cutting’ vs ‘insult’ — in Himachal, Congress-BJP spar over scrapped pension to Emergency prisoners

‘Cost-cutting’ vs ‘insult’ — in Himachal, Congress-BJP spar over scrapped pension to Emergency prisoners

Ex-CM Shanta Kumar called it an insult to those fought against the Emergency. Minister Harshvardhan Chauhan said scheme was started to give pension to 'RSS people'

Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu-led government scrapped the Himachal Pradesh Loktantra Prahri Samman scheme on 4 March | ANI

Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu-led government scrapped the Himachal Pradesh Loktantra Prahri Samman scheme on 4 March | ANI

Shimla: The Congress government led by Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are at loggerheads over the now scrapped Himachal Pradesh Loktantra Prahri Samman scheme that was introduced by the erstwhile dispensation in April 2021.

Citing austerity measures, the Sukhu government scrapped this scheme on 4 March. 

Under the now abolished scheme, Himachal residents, who were jailed or detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), 1971, or the Defence of India Rules 1971, or the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 for political or social reasons during the Emergency, were provided a monthly pension. 

Himachal Pradesh was the second state after Maharashtra to start the scheme. The Maharashtra government led by Devendra Fadnavis started a similar scheme in January 2018, which was later scrapped by the Congress NCP-Shiv Sena alliance government in July 2020. The current government has reinstated it again July 2022.

Those who went to jail for 15 days or less were granted a monthly honorarium of Rs 12,000, while those who were jailed for more than 15 days, were given an honorarium of Rs 20,000 as Saman Rashi, a government official said.

Naresh Chauhan, principal advisor to the chief minister, said the government has been taking measures to cut down on expenses. “Several ministers, former ministers, MLAs and BJP leaders were among the beneficiaries. This decision was not to disrespect anyone, but to save the public money,” he told ThePrint. 

The BJP, however, has accused the Congress of wasteful expenditure by appointing chief parliamentary secretaries (CPS) and giving cabinet ranks to favourites. 

“The Congress government has suspended the scheme honouring those who fought for democracy to fund the bills of CPS, cabinet rank holders. By doing this, the party  is hailing the Emergency — an act that had throttled democracy,” former law minister and senior BJP leader Suresh Bhardwaj told ThePrint. 

The matter did not go down well with the opposition party, which led to a war of words in the Vidhan Sabha on 29 March where the issue was raised for discussion by Sanjay Rattan, Congress MLA from Jawalamukhi. 

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War of words in assembly

The staunchest criticism came from former chief minister and former Union minister Shanta Kumar — one of the beneficiaries of the scheme — who said the Congress MLAs have insulted those who had fought “the second freedom struggle”. 

“Fighting against the Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government was the second freedom struggle. Several people fought, were jailed for safeguarding democracy,” he said after the assembly session. 

Kumar, was also jailed during the Emergency for 19 months, told the media that “whatever happened in the state assembly was more painful than the Emergency days”.

Countering Kumar’s stand, Parliamentary affairs minister Harshvardhan Singh Chauhan said, “this (scheme) was started to give pension to RSS people, ministers or leaders.” “This was not a movement. The BJP portrayed it as a movement. Who were jailed under MISA? They were RSS people. The BJP government misused the government money to benefit its own people,” he said. 

Criticism also came from Suresh Bhardwaj, who was instrumental in introducing the Loktantra Prahari Scheme and was also a beneficiary, as he demanded that “Congress should apologise and clear its stand on Emergency.” 

“This is nothing more than an effort to appease the Congress high command. The Congress imposed the Emergency and is now defending it by insulting those who faced the atrocities,” he told ThePrint.

Shanta Kumar, like Bhardwaj, also demanded that the new government should apologise. “This scheme was not about the pension of monetary benefit, but to honour those who fought for democracy. We don’t need any pension or honour, but the government should apologise for this injustice,” he added. 

But Congress MLA Sanjay Rattan said people were arrested for different reasons, like anti-social activities. “Public money should not be wasted like this,” he added.

On Saturday, Shanta Kumar posted on social media that more than 75,000 people were jailed across the country and it was a crusade to safeguard democracy. “Neither there was foreign invasion nor had something big happened then. Then the PM was disqualified by the court for adopting corrupt practices during elections and the entire country was converted to a jail,” he said.

Former chief minister Jairam Thakur, who is leader of opposition in Vidhan Sabha, said the scheme was started to give “Samman Rashi” to the families of those who were jailed or detained during the Emergency under particular sections.

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Debate over scheme not new

On March 20, 2021 when the Himachal Pradesh Loktantra Prahri Samman Bill was discussed in the assembly, Sukhu, who was then the Congress MLA from Nadaun, had suggested that people who were imprisoned during the Emergency for vandalism should not be brought under this scheme.

Sukhu had also suggested changing the term “Loktantra Prahari” as it includes journalists, RTI activists. He had alleged that people associated with the BJP would be given the honorarium.

To this, the then CM Jairam Thakur had replied that the BJP was not in existence at that time, and that people from all sections of society were part of the mass movement against the Emergency.

(Edited by Richa Mishra)

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