It was last Thursday, July 2, that my phone started buzzing with notifications from friends and fellow members of the disabled community. The day earlier, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had quietly released a notification under the ‘What’s new’ section of their website titled “Decriminalisation of Minor Offences For Improving Business Sentiment And Unclogging Court Processes – Amendment in RPwD Act, 2016”.
Protection against discrimination is addressed in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act through Section 92. It states that “intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a person with disability in any place within public view” are “punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine”.
The amendment proposed that “(1) any offence under Section 89, 92(a) and 93, may, either before or after the institution of proceedings, be compounded by the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities or the State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, as the case may be, with the consent of the aggrieved person with disability, by such amount and in such manner as the Central Government may, by notification, specify in this behalf.
(2) Where an offence has been compounded under sub-sections (1), the offender, if in custody, shall be discharged and any proceeding in respect of such offence, shall be dropped.”
These amendments gave Chief or State Commissioners the right to withdraw cases with the consent of the aggrieved party.
A similar letter had also been shared with seven select NGOs in June. The government primarily gave two reasons for this proposed amendment – “attracting investments and ease of doing business” and “unclogging the court system”. The public was given 10 days to respond.
We in the disability sector were not only shocked the proposed amendment but also amused by the flimsy excuses given to defend this proposed amendment. As I wrote on Scroll.in on July 6, these excuses were unacceptable because the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was not even on the list of 37 pieces of legislation that India’s apex industry body, the Confederation of Indian Industry, had urged the government to decriminalise in its petition in February.
The argument about wanting to unclog the court system also fell flat with no data supporting the argument. The article was shared by influential people ranging from Shashi Tharoor to Varun Grover, adding weight and momentum to the arguments.
With the virus around, Persons with Disabilities couldn’t get on to the streets to protest. However, it was wonderful to see the entire sector unite together to fight this amendment. The National Platform for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities released a statement with 125 endorsements from activists and organisations condemning the act.
Dr Satendra Singh, a disability rights activist and professor at University of Medical Sciences, wrote a piece for Youth Ki Awaaz on how politicians and elected representatives have humiliated Persons with Disabilities in the past and the ways in which he’s used this act against them. Shampa Sengupta followed up with an article for feminisminindia on how these amendments are a violation of the rights based approach.
Amba Salelkar of Equals came up with an excellent FAQ on what this amendment means and how it affects Persons with Disability. Vaishnavi Jayakumar from Chennai created the #SaveTheRPDA hashtag. There were many others who provided background support, it would be impossible to mention each one of them.
The Ministry responded by sending KVS Rao, the Director of the Department of Disability Affairs to Radio Udaan, an online radio station run by Persons with Disabilities. Interviewed by Danish Mahajan, a fierce journalist who has a visual disability himself, Rao offered an articulate defence, saying not all kinds of discrimination are the same. If only the draft amendments had acknowledged that instead of empowering commissioners to compound any case that he or she deems fit.
By now, a campaign on the change.org site had received thousands of signatories supporting the cause of the amendment being repealed. I woke up on July 8 to rumours that the ministry was repealing the proposed amendment. And then, the notification confirming that was released on July 9.
Persons with Disabilities had won. What made this victory specially sweet was the fact that because of Covid-19, we didn’t have many of the popular tools of protest available to us. However, I do think India’s disabled taught the country a lesson through this battle. Disability in many ways is a weird minority. As per the act, this country has 21 disabilities. Each disability has its own restrictions, challenges and needs.
Within each such disability, the magnitude of the challenge is different for each person. Besides, disability is only part of our identity as all of us have diverse ideologies. However, for the last ten days, we were one. We fought as one. In the process we succeeded in not only squashing the proposed amendment but in saving the rights of Persons with Disabilities too.
Nipun Malhotra is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, Wheels For Life (www.wheelsforlife.in). His Twitter handle is @nipunmalhotra.
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