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In Defence of The Proposed Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill, 2011

by Javed Anand, 30 August 2011

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The Economic and Political Weekly, 20 August 2011

The response of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the rest of its right wing parivar to the proposed Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011 is not much of a surprise. Conditioned by a pernicious ideology plus the dictates of Hindu vote bank politics, the protagonists of Hindutva cannot but give such a response to any and every expression of legitimate democratic concern for the sorry plight of India’s minorities. The very appointment of the high-powered Sachar Committee by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 to look into the socio-economic and educational status of India’s Muslims was castigated as "minority appeasement". The report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Ranganath Mishra Commission) - also appointed by the UPA government in 2004 to examine and "recommend measures for welfare of socially and economically backward sections among religious and linguistic minorities, including reservation in education and government employment" - has still not been discussed in Parliament. One can thus ex-pect more sound and fury whenever the bill on communal violence is introduced in Parliament. Apart from the votaries of Hindutva some from within the media and even the secular camp are also opposed to it.

The bill, it is fallaciously argued by some, assumes that the Hindu majority is always the perpetrator, never the victim of communal violence, and is therefore denied any protection in it. It is thus seen to be grossly discriminatory. Another argument is that the existing laws of the land are more than sufficient to deal with the perpetrators of communal violence. The need of the hour, according to its proponents, is not more laws but effective implementation of the existing ones. But the most novel argument against the bill has been propounded by the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney who has spent years researching communal strife in India. Varshney fully supports the "moderate liberal" standpoint that any democracy worth the name must guard against the tendency to drift towards majoritarianism and make special provisions to protect discrimination against minorities. He then proceeds to argue that with India now riding a strong growth curve, the emerging "politics of aspirations" leaves little space for communal politics. Since communal violence belongs to India’s past, why create a new institution with a massive bureaucracy for a non-issue?

Some reflection on the context of the contested text, a closer look at the nature of the beast staring us in the face might help us see the issue in a proper perspective. The 1980s marked a decisive shift in the morphology of communal violence in India. Until then the predominant narrative was that of communal riots, a two-way affair in which two communities clashed with each other. The score may not be even but in the end both sides suffered, more or less. Report after report of government appointed commissions of inquiry probing these riots invariably found the police and the administration guilty of biased conduct. But the 1980s marked a major shift in this narrative: from an era of "riots" India moved on to an era of one-sided carnages, and pogroms targeting India’s religious minorities. In this post-riots scenario the role of the State is no longer limited to partisan behaviour: in the past three decades it has been an active accomplice, prime instigator, and even chief sponsor of mass crimes. Nellie, Assam 1983 (target Muslims); Delhi 1984 (target Sikhs); Bhagalpur 1989 (target Muslims); Mumbai 1992-93 (target Muslims); Gujarat 2002 (target Muslims); Kandhamal, Orissa 2008 (target Christians) are the most gruesome reminders of this ugly reality.

Were we to go by the definition adopted by the UN’s 1948 "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide", the Indian state emerges with the dubious distinction of having subjected its religious minorities - Muslims, Sikhs, Christians - to genocidal targeting six times in 25 years. It is a record that many dictatorships might find tough to match. Thanks to our prevailing culture of impunity, in each case, the masterminds of the mass killings have gone unpunished, while the police officers responsible for shocking dereliction of duty actually got promotions. Two months before India’s 26/11 (2008), delivering the General Cariappa Memorial Lecture in Delhi, the then union finance minister, P Chidambaram, foresaw "new waves of terror" in India. "Out of the hopelessness and despair of the Muslim community - and if not addressed firmly, the Christian tribal communities too (Kandhamal) - will rise new waves of terror", he warned. The national media chose to altogether ignore these alarm bells or relegated it to a few paragraphs on the inside pages. Soon after being made the union home minister in the aftermath of 26/11, Chidambaram spoke again: "We cannot fight terrorism effectively unless we fight communalism with equal determination". Obviously, Chidambaram sees a close link between terrorism - "bomb terror" - and communalism - "mob terror". He even implies that the roots of terrorism lie in the failure of the State to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. The highly regarded former senior police officer, Julio Ribeiro, had this to say in unison with several other retired police officers and civil servants more than a decade ago: "By its failure to protect the life and property of a section of its citizens, the state sows the seeds of extremism".

We all know now that extremism or terrorism was never the monopoly of a particular religion or community. (For those who still harbour some doubts on the terror-religion relationship, the latest message from a "Christian fundamentalist" in Norway should help.) India now is home to both Muslim and Hindu extremists: sadhus and sadhvis are as much implicated in the web of terror as self-styled jihadists. Unchecked mob terror gave birth to bomb terror which in turn has given rise to "retaliatory" bombs. We also happen to be living in the immediate vicinity of the Taliban, the Inter-Services Intelligence, and the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Given the context, we can continue to ignore the implications of state-condoned, state-sponsored mass killings at our own peril. Let us keep this backdrop in mind as we return to the proposed bill and the objections to it. The answer to this proposition is both yes and no. It is true that even in the worst moments in Mumbai in 1992-93 and Gujarat in 2002, one can find examples of islands of peace simply because the inspector in-charge of a police station, the officer in-charge of a zone, the police chief of a district sent out a clear signal in his jurisdiction that there would be zero tolerance towards lawbreakers. Yes, the existing laws have been sufficient for the conscientious police officer alive to his/her constitutional obligation to impartially enforce the rule of law. Meanwhile, there was mass murder and mayhem all around because the police in those areas saw themselves not as servants of the Constitution but as slaves of their political masters. Yes, dereliction of duty is an offence even in the existing laws but it exists only on paper. The proposed bill is necessary because it sends out a clear warning that under the new legislation law-keepers guilty of dereliction of duty will be severely dealt with. If ministers and other public servants can be jailed for corruption, why should they not be punished, more severely so, for such callous disregard for the life and property of any group of targeted citizens?

Targeting the Lawbreakers
By Javed Anand
in: The Economic & Political Weekly, Aug 20, 2011
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The above article from The Economic and Political Weekly has been reproduced here for educational purposes and is for non commercial use.