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Sectarian Violence in Plural Society
By Ram Puniyani

The present UPA government came to power in the aftermath of Gujarat carnage of 2002. This carnage intensified the wedge between major religious communities like never before. It was the horrific violence and immunity and the protection which the rioters got from the state government duly approved by central government, was one of the factors that prompted a section of population to ensure that the NDA government, is defeated at the hustings. Also the other political force, which was giving electoral fight to the BJP, Congress, promised the nation that when elected it will take suitable measures, including the introduction of new legislation, which will ensure that the violence is prevented in the future. In this direction, this government came with a draft bill circulated by the Home ministry, Communal Violence /Prevention bill in 2005. The circulation of that draft resulted in an intense discussion amongst the social action groups, including the socially committed legal minds, who felt that the draft bill hardly addresses the issues and on the contrary it will potentially result in worsening the scenario.

This proposed bill of 2005 further empowered the state machinery to deal with the situation. The civic action groups correctly pointed out that the carnage takes place and continues not because there are no provisions in the law to prevent or deal with it but because the political leadership wants the violence to continue and the police and bureaucratic machinery is communalized to the hilt because of which it plays an ideal foil to the political powers spearheading the violation of rules of the land. At the same time the experience of last fifty odd years is that the perpetrators of communal violence have not only gone unpunished, many a times they have even been rewarded administratively and benefited politically.

It was pointed out that there are live examples of the role of political leadership in such situations. The case of Bihar under Lalu Prasad Yadav and the West Bengal under the Left front are there to prove the point. Lalu Yadav, not only arrested the main instigator of violence Lal Krishna Advani when the rath Yatra entered Bihar but also instructed all concerned officials that if violence takes place in their areas, the concerned officials will be suspended. It also confirmed the major observation by the scholar and top police official Vibhuti Narayan Rai. Rai has done commendable research on the communal violence and the role of officials and leadership. He concludes that no violence can continue beyond 48 hours unless there are political/bureaucratic elements, which are providing shelter, encouragement and umbrella to the perpetrators of the violence. There could not have been better validation of Rai's thesis than the case of Bihar, which had earlier seen the dastardly Bhagalpur riots.

The government did realize that the draft introduced by it has too many holes. The pressure of opinion of activists/scholars led it to revise the same. Unfortunately the revised draft does not go far in addressing the issues raised by the human rights groups. This bill, which is due for introduction in the next session of parliament, is again far from what can curb the violence. A group of leading jurists/scholars and activists deliberated on this (mid June 2007) and came to the conclusion that the treatment offered through this bill will worsen the disease rather than mitigating it. In a public statement they outright rejected this bill and pointed out that, "What we have before us today is a dangerous piece of legislation called the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control & Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill 2005, which will not only fail to secure justice for communal crimes, but will actually strengthen the shield of protection enjoyed by the State, its political leaders and its officials for their acts of omission and commission in these crimes. It is a Bill, which conceives of communal violence as a 'one time' event rather than as a long-term politically motivated process, and seeks to prevent it only by giving greater powers to (often communally tainted) State governments. Further, it continues to perpetuate the silence around gender-based crimes." (From the Public statement issued by the group in Delhi)  

The major flaws of the old bill continue. Rather than strengthening the people, the community in dealing with such a situation, it further strengthens the police and bureaucracy. The appeal further calls for a total redrafting of the bill in consultation with the jurists and social groups who have been working on different aspects of the violence. What does the present bill aim at? It states that its aim is to, '"to empower the State Governments and the Central Governments to take measures to provide for prevention and control of communal violence...". What should be the premise of the bill? From where should it take off? It is very clear that India's communal violence, which began from early sixties, Jabalpur violence being the first one, can teach us as to in which direction we should draft our legislations. To begin with the core cause of violence is the prevalence of notions about minorities, which are going on increasing with time, there is demonization of minorities, lots of biases prevail about the religious minorities, to the extent that some people have started believing that they are foreigners and should leave the country.

It is precisely these ideas, the communal common sense, which is the base on which ethno-preneurs, the leaders who misuse community identity to instigate violence, like Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi, build up their sectarian politics with ease. If the bill is to aim at the comprehensive prevention of violence, this issue has to be the starting point of the bill. It should be mandatory for state to propagate the values of freedom movement, the values of fraternity, and the essential contents of Indian constitution giving all of us equal status irrespective of our religion, caste or gender. Whether it should be part of the bill or should be made the directive principle of state policy is a matter of technicality but without this no measures will succeed whatever be the other situations.

Bill should also talk of training of the concerned authorities in the values of national integration. This training, which is the regular one for these officers should have this ingrained in that in addition to occasional ones'. This should derive its contents from the values of Indian nationalism and not sectarian, religion based nationalism. Coming to pre violence situation there is a need to curb the hate speech, the communal propaganda which precedes the violence. The civic action groups and individual have been breaking their heads against the wall but the hate propaganda through word of mouth and section of media keeps going on fracturing the community bonds. As an example lets recall how in Mumbai Bal Thackeray went scot free despite spewing poison in his mouth piece Saamna, as a build up to the violence of 92-93.

The positive experience of inter-religious committees initiated by the valiant police officer Suresh Khopde, which worked well in Bhiwandi (1980s), near Mumbai has been lost on the policy makers. Should it not be obligatory on the authorities to be consulting with people from all religions before, during and after the violence? It is quite likely that if the bridges between communities are kept live the chances of violence will diminish despite the worst intentions of those wanting to bake their bread in the fire of sectarianism.

During the violence, it is mandatory that once the violence threatening the lives of people and spirit of amity, all the provisions of criminal law are seriously implemented, in addition the political and civic auditing of the actions of police should become part of the law. The highest political authorities have to be duty bound to respond to the violence by ensuring that officers abide by the law. This is easier said than done. During Gujarat violence as RSS combine was on the killing spree, all the authorities from bottom to top , Gujarat home minister, Chief minister, Central home minister and the prime minister himself, were those who were trained in the RSS shakhas, were trained in hating minorities. What precious little can be done to save democracy in such situation? We have to constantly remember that implementation of law is in the hands of authorities and we need to devise a mechanism of auditing their actions on continuous basis.

The inquiry committees. Madon, Vithayathil, Reddy, Shrikrishna, Bhagalpur and many others have demonstrated the role of communal organizations in instigating and planning the violence. Can we as a democracy put a break on these organizations and their activities? Tall order! There has to be a legal provision that no organization can preach divisiveness and hate in their literature. The registering of FIRs and investigation of incidents has to be immediate. We perhaps need a more active Human Rights commission, with powers to intervene suo motto or in response to complaints to pull up the highest of authorities once the violation of basic laws is taking place. Riot investigation, special courts, justice to the victims needs to be put in proper and suitable place. The compensation mechanism is not in order and ridiculously low amounts have been paid to the victims who have suffered the loss of their near and dear one's, who have lost all they had for their livelihood. The rehabilitation process is conspicuous by its absence, as the case of Gujarat demonstrates again. There is a need fro empowering Human Rights commission on the lines of Election Commission. As the victim minorities are deprived of equal opportunities, it is important that an Equal Opportunities Commission also formed to empower the minorities.

One hopes that the present government does not present this shoddy bill in the parliament and evolves a suitable advisory committee drawn from those working with victims of violence at social and legal level to prepare a fresh draft bill for discussion in the parliament. Further controlling the sectarian violence goes much beyond just laws. Law can just be an adjunct to the whole social-political process of the concept of national integration. But all the same law has its own place and importance in that direction, one will urge upon the government not to bring a remedy which is worse than the disease.