Op-Ed

Towards a Riot Free India: Debates around Draft of Communal Violence Bill

Ram Puniyani

India has been subject to communal violence right from the first Post Partition riot of 1961 in Jabalpur. Later one saw the intensification of this violence in the decade of 1980, from which time it has become a major issue disrupting peace and amity amongst religious communities. The most disturbing of these riots have been the Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1984 (Delhi) anti Muslim carnage of 1992-93 (Mumbai in particular) and 2002 (Gujarat). Anti Christian violence surfaced with the sporadic acts and went on becoming worsening, the burning alive of Pastor Graham Stains (1999) and Kandhmal violence of 2008 being the horrific example of this.

A scene from Parzania - Indian film based on Gujarat riot 2002

With this concern the UPA introduced a Bill to strengthen legal mechanism to deal with the violence. Somehow the bill as drafted earlier turned out to be ‘a remedy worse that disease’. Though this Bill is already in Rajya Sabha the human rights activists and representations from affected minority communities protested and pointed out the fallacies of the Bill. Responding to their anguish, UPA II gave the task of drafting the bill to National Advisory Committee. Two of whose members (Farah Naqvi and Harsh Mander) convened the Advisory Group with social activists to prepare a draft. After the intense efforts for over a period of one and a half years the draft is in the final stage, and has been put on its websites and is awaiting the final touch up before being submitted to the Government.

A study of this draft reveals that for the first time a significant step in communal violence control has been undertaken in a most serious way. This Bill covers most of the points which lead to violence, add to sustaining it, and later lead to denial of justice. As such the most neglected areas of violence against women, the area of rehabilitation and reparation also get a prominent and adequate recommendation from this Bill.

One concedes that some rough edges of the Bill do need smoothening, but still overall it is a landmark step in trying to create an institutional mechanism to boost National integration and Communal Harmony. Notwithstanding that, the BJP leadership, Arun Jaitley, and a section of media has already started to oppose the Bill and is propagating that the Bill just talks of violence against Minorities (i.e. Muslims and Christians) and ignores the violence against the majority community. Nothing can be farther from truth. The attempt of the draft is to define the Minority as the religious, linguistic groups. It also brings in the targeted violence against SC and ST. The concept of the draft is guided by the total experience of the society during last six decades.

The data of last six decades is very revealing. In 1991, it was estimated that while the percentage of Muslim minorities is 12.4 in the population, amongst the riot victims Muslims were 80%. The latest data reveals that Muslims constitute 90% of the victims of violence. The anti Christian violence figures speak for themselves, where one notices that not only sporadic violence has been on the rise, there are concerted acts of violence, like the one witnessed in Kandhmal. The violence against dalits and STs has been occurring regularly. In that sense the focus of this draft is well taken, as it is taking into consideration the concrete realties of our society.

This focus is very similar to the focus of Domestic Violence bill and the bill against atrocities on Dalits and STs. While there may be few acts of violence against men by women, it is primarily women who are the major victims of domestic violence. Similarly while upper caste may be the victims of violence by dalits-STs occasionally, the major brunt is borne by dalits and STs, so this focus. It also does not mean that violence against men or upper caste will go unpunished or unaddressed. Similarly those from the majority who suffer due to violence initiated by minorities should be suitably given justice, most of the provisions for this are already there. Needless to say even in the anti-minority targeted violence, some from the majority also have to suffer incidentally; justice to them is part of the system and existing provisions.

So does this draft ignore the Hindu majority? Lets notice that the focus of definition of Minority group, as religious, linguistic, caste and tribe. As per that we can easily see that Hindus are a religious minority in seven states in India, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Andaman-Nicobar. Hindus are linguistic minorities in many states. The bill also talks of SCs and STs on the same ground. With such an approach the long standing issue of Kashmiri Pundits also gets a new mechanism which can help get them justice as they are a minority in their state.

The argument that it does not address the violence of minority against the majority religious community is a deliberate propaganda on the part of BJP. One knows that this Bill is aiming at curbing the mass violence. The mass violence has been mainly against religious minorities. The religious minorities also suffer from the institutional bias at the hands of the police, bureaucracy and other state institutions. Most of the studies have demonstrated this fact and one must recall the conclusions of the study of Dr. Vibhuti Nariain Rai, a Police officer, who concluded that police attitude is heavily biased against religious minorities and that in most of the mass violence cases a situation is created by the majoritiarian political groups, where by the Muslims are cornered, forced against the wall; where sometimes they throw the first stone out of sheer frustration. This Bill deals with the mass violence and not isolated incidents here and there. The existing clauses of IPC and Cr PC are fairly adequate to deal with the violence against majority community.

The major highlight of this Bill is to ensure the accountability of the officials whose act of commission and omission are at the root of the continuation of the violence. They in turn are sometimes being dictated by the political leadership. Again as Rai points out no act of communal violence can go on beyond 48 hours unless the administration is complicit in the violence. The attempt of the Draft Bill is also to pin down the political leadership which is behind the foot soldiers on the rampage in the streets. The experience of most the riots and the inquiry reports of most of the major events of communal violence show that there is a well planned execution of the anti minority violence, so the leadership of political group behind these perpetrators will also come under the gambit of the bill. The most significant point is to take action against the Hate propaganda against the vulnerable communities and their economic and social boycott. This bill attempts to address those delicate areas of our political reality.

With this it becomes obvious that the BJP and associates, the progeny of RSS, attempting to create ‘Hindu Majoritarian State’ will naturally be disturbed by the Bill trying to comprehensively deal with the issue, to ensure our effort to maintain the plural structure of our state where we all can live the life of dignity. The bill does recognize that communal violence is trying to shift of our polity in a sectarian direction and it is the duty of state to provide the atmosphere of security for all the citizens.

The strong aspects of the Bill relate to ensuring that state as the guardian of all, vulnerable sections included, must take responsibility of the victims of violence, their rehabilitation and process of reparation put in place to ensure that the affected communities are not boycotted after the violence and are able to live the life of peace and amity.

The role of Central Government in monitoring the whole process, and the center-state relations are the points which do need refining so that Center is able to curb the mass violence without stepping on the toes of the state Government. That’s a matter of fine tuning the bill. The need is to ensure that the existing mechanisms of justice are properly implemented and victims are empowered. The nature of National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation, as suggested by NAC, with 7 members, four of them being from minority community is a welcome part of the draft. One hopes this body is modeled on the functioning of Election Commission, with adequate powers without disturbing the existing mechanisms, just ensuring that existing power structures and mechanisms become properly answerable. In this accountability and command responsibility of those from the top also come under the purview for their decisions related to commission or omission both. One also knows that mere laws don’t solve all the problems. The need to instill the values of amity and harmony as embodied in our freedom movement need to be re-emphasized by the state and social movements so that such a bill becomes a real effective check on the divisive tendencies in the society.

Ram Puniyani was a Professorof Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai and works keenly on social issues. He is the author of three books including Communal Politics: An illustrated primer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.

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