LAYING DOWN THE LAW

Brief encounter: Is ‘Newton’ an accurate depiction of the laws covering Indian elections?

Amit Masurkar’s acclaimed movie ‘Newton’ is honest and pedantic when it comes to depicting the law, just like its lead character.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.)

Newton is a deep dive into the workings of Indian democracy at its most basic level. Like its titular character, it’s honest and pedantic when it comes to depicting the law.

Amit Masurkar’s movie broadens your perspective by showing certain realities through the story of Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao), an honest and idealistic government officer who is given the task of presiding over elections in the Naxal-infested jungles of Chhattisgarh. Newton is upright and determined to do what he thinks is right through the letter of the law. This determination is tested as he interacts with people and situations that ignore, oppose, and challenge his ideals. This happens in the backdrop of conducting elections in a setting where it seems impossible, and in some instances futile to do so.

One sequence perfectly captures the movie’s spirit. Newton is in constant conflict with Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), the armed officer providing security to Newton and his team as they travel into the Dandakaranaya forests in Chhattisgarh to register the mandate of 76 tribal villagers. The area is supposedly unsafe and Aatma Singh wants the election team out of his hair as soon as possible. But Newton is persistent, dogged, stodgy and dedicated. He knows the rules of his job and follows them to the T. An infuriated Aatma Singh tells him “Newton ho, Newton hee raho, Einstein mat bano”.

The movie is as unusual as Newton the character, in that they are both honest and factually accurate to a large extent. In one the first scenes, we see Newton and his fellow officers being oriented in the process of conducting elections by their senior (Sanjay Mishra). A common query that they all have is what would happen in case the polling booth gets captured by Naxals. They are informed that in that case the elections would be cancelled and held again. If the booth is captured the second time, the same thing would happen, and so on.

This is true. Section 58A of the Representation of People Act 1951 says exactly that. The section explains how, if the election commission is convinced that booth capturing has taken place, the poll at that specific polling station would be declared void, and fresh elections would take place. The law also explains that in case a large number of booths from one constituency are captured, then the election would be cancelled for the whole constituency and would take place again.

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Newton (2017).

The most good-humoured character on screen is Lokenath (Raghubhir Yadav), who assists Newton in his duties. He is on his last election beat and is on hand to provide witty comments to anyone who will listen. He remarks that their work isn’t really a big deal since there is an election booth set up for only one person in Gir forest (It’s true). When they have set up the booth and people don’t turn up to vote, he, along with Aatma Singh, keeps trying to encourage Newton to abandon the process. Newton, however keeps repeating that they have to stay as long as polling is open. The time period for which polling is to be open is decided by the law. S. 56 of the Representation of People Act 1951 empowers the Election Commission to fix the hours for polling and this cannot be less than eight hours.

Another character is Malko (Anjali Patil), the booth level officer, who is a school teacher and is Adivasi belonging to the region. She provides a nuanced perspective on the reality of the voting process. She is an officer of the state, but also someone who has lived through the realities of Naxalism and how the state deals with it. There is a beautiful scene in which she finds Newton’s indignation at the things happening around him to be funny. She explains to him how this may be the first time he is seeing the relationship between the state and Adivasis, but she has been born and bred in it. Her main job is to make sure that the electoral rolls are in order, and she is appointed to do that under Section 13B of the Representation of People Act 1950.

Newton, Aatma Singh and Malko aren’t permanent employees of the election commission, so how can they be doing election work?

There is a specific section that allows for this. Section 159 of the Representation of People Act 1951 says that the staff of any local, state, or central authority can be made available for election work.

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A promotional video for Newton.

A slightly sad and ironic scene is when Newton finally gets some people together (with some coercive help from the forces) and along with Malko helps them understand what he wants them to do, he is flummoxed when they tell him they have not heard of the candidates or the parties he has mentioned. They have absolutely no idea who to vote for and ask him for advice. He refuses, and once again Newton is correct in following the letter of the law. Section 129 of the Representation of People Act 1951 prohibits election officers from influencing voting in any way.

However, the law does have a provision for helping illiterate and/or infirm voters in recording their vote. The same is given in Rule 25 of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961. As per this provision the officer is allowed to mark the ballot paper in accordance to the wishes of the elector in his presence.

The movie veers off its accuracy in two places. Voting is not compulsory in India. In the movie, the army personnel coerce people to vote, which is contrary to the position of law in India. It is not compulsory for any citizen to vote in India. In fact, this was expressly rejected by the constitution drafters since it would be practically difficult to implement.

In the second instance, the army personnel ask for people who have voter IDs. Newton makes it clear that only people who have voter IDs can be allowed to vote. This is not the position of the law. The election commission has made it clear that alternative photo based identification can be used to for exercising the right to vote. The right to vote is a right available to every citizen above 18 in India as guaranteed by Article 326 of the Constitution. Further, the right to vote is subject to certain qualifications as stipulated bySection 62 of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951.

Newton’s pedantic adherence to the law is also showcased when his parents try to arrange his marriage. However, Newton discovers that the prospective bride is 16 years of age and reprimands his parents for choosing someone not legally eligible for marriage. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 makes it clear that a female below the age of 18 years is a minor. It is a crime for an adult male to marry a girl who is a minor and punishes anyone who helps in performing the child marriage in any way. So, Newton, along with his parents, as well as the girl’s parents, could have been in trouble for this, with a jail stint up to two years as per the law.

Newton is someone with whom idealists would identify. He is not disheartened by the illiteracy of the voters and their inability to participate in the elections. Till the end, he retains the hope that exercising their right to vote has the potential to bring about positive change in the lives of the electors. Aatma Singh is a cynic; he believes elections are a hollow, meaningless exercise that will change nothing, and this is reflected in his attitude throughout. However he is dutiful towards his nation, and this is reflected when he equates the weight of his gun with carrying the burden of the nation.

Newton isn’t a preachy film. It doesn’t tell you whose beliefs are correct. It’s a story that will hopefully help you reflect on what democracy may mean for different people, and for you.

If you want to know more about how the law deals with voting and elections, check out this simple guide.

Nyaaya is a legal-tech initiative explaining India’s laws. Ideated by Rohini Nilekani and created by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

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