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India: Why the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill must be codified into law

by Teesta Setalvad, 17 November 2011

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Communalism Combat, November 2011

Act Now

Why the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill must be codified into law

BY TEESTA SETALVAD

In 1998, five years after we launched Communalism Combat, we had pointed out, in possibly one of the first researched compilations on judicial pronouncements on communal violence, that from the first ever bout of communal violence in free India (Jabalpur, 1961) to the full-blown pogroms that followed some decades later, two characteristics typified the violent frenzies that frequently cost us lives and property (‘Who is to blame?’, Communalism Combat, March 1998).

Both characteristics hold good today.

One is the silent yet strident mobilisation by right-wing supremacist groups through hate speech and hate writing against religious and other minorities for months beforehand. Though these have always amounted to violations of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), they have gone unchecked and unpunished, creating a climate that is fertile ground for the actual outbreak of violence. The other major cause of such violence has been found, by several members of the Indian judiciary, to be the failure of large sections of the administration and the police force to enforce the rule of law, resulting in a complete breakdown indicating deliberate inaction and complicity.

Both these features combined each time – whether in Jabalpur (1961), Ranchi (1967, Justice Raghubir Dayal Commission of Inquiry), Ahmedabad (1969, Justice Jagmohan Reddy Commission of Inquiry), Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad (1970, Justice DP Madon Commission of Inquiry), Tellicherry (1971, Justice Joseph Vithayathil Commission of Inquiry), Hashimpura (1987) or Bhagalpur (1989) – to ensure that minorities were not just brutally targeted but also denied free access to justice and reparation.

The organised violence in Delhi in 1984, Bombay in 1992-1993 and Gujarat in 2002 took the levels of impunity for state and non-state actors to hitherto unknown heights. A historiography of communal violence since Indian independence thus reveals a poor report card on justice delivery and reparation. Today unfortunately, we have extant examples of victim survivors, Muslim, Sikh and Christian, still waiting at the threshold for the first stages of investigation and trial to begin decades after the crimes have taken place.

The newly drafted Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill 2011 (commonly referred to as the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill), which awaits a nod from the cabinet before it is tabled in Parliament, is an attempt to address the imbalance and the despair caused by over six decades of discriminatory justice delivery. Far from being discriminatory against the majority, it entitles any victim – whether from the majority or a minority – to a robust scheme for compensation and reparation.

The bill is legislative acceptance of the discriminations in justice delivery faced by sections of our population that have long been subject to communal and targeted violence. When citizens who are numerically weak and socially disadvantaged are attacked on account of their identity, institutions of governance – law enforcement and protection and justice delivery – most frequently act in ways that discriminate against them.

The Communal and Targeted Violence Bill seeks to protect religious and linguistic minorities in any state in India, as well as the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, from targeted violence, including organised and communal violence. Apart from including the offences listed under the penal code, the proposed law modernises the definition of sexual assault to cover all sexist crimes that heap indignity on the victims (including stripping in public, etc), not just rape, and broadens the definition of hate speech and writing already penalised under Section 153A of the IPC.

Most significantly, it deepens the definition of dereliction of duty – which is already a crime under the IPC – and for the first time in India includes offences by public servants and/or other superiors for breach of command responsibility. “Where it is shown that continuing unlawful activity of a widespread or systematic nature has occurred,” the draft bill says, “it may be presumed that the public servant charged with the duty to prevent communal and targeted violence has failed… to exercise control over persons under his or her command, control or supervision and… shall be guilty of the offence of breach of command responsibility.” With the minimum punishment for this offence being 10 years’ imprisonment, superiors will hopefully be deterred from allowing a Delhi 1984 or Bombay 1992-1993 or Gujarat 2002 to recur. The proposed law will also act as a deterrent to acts of complicity by public servants during smaller bouts of violence and awards fair compensation and reparation to victims when they do occur.

Positive and reasonable legislative steps to correct either the discriminatory exercise of state power or the discriminatory delivery of justice draw strength from a clear constitutional mandate. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution states that: “The state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”. Article 21 clearly places the responsibility on the state to ensure equal protection of life and liberty (and, by implication, property) and Article 15(1) provides that “the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. This is recognition that vulnerable groups may require protection from the state.

Every democracy is premised on the assumption that while the majority can take care of itself, minorities need special protection. Consider for a moment India’s experience in tackling communal violence (or its failure thereof) alongside our history of recurring bouts of targeted violence, when numerically weaker and socially disadvantaged groups –linguistic or religious minorities or Dalits or tribals – are attacked because of their identity. Throw into this analysis the review of the application (or non-application) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. And the reasoning behind the need for this law, applicable to minorities defined not just by faith but also by other criteria, becomes immediately evident.

“Minority” is not, or should not be, a rigidly frozen concept based on religion alone. The reality is otherwise, as our sordid experience of the attacks on Kashmiri Pandits in the Kashmir valley or the violence unleashed on North Indians/Biharis in Mumbai and Maharashtra or Tamils in Karnataka has shown. With the migration of populations and altering demographies, democracies need to develop sound measures for the protection of all the people. Jurisprudence through justice delivery and reparation through compensation packages must reflect this ever changing reality.

There is a simple way in which to make the proposed law applicable to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Jammu and Kashmir assembly must first pass a simple resolution addressed to the president of India asking that the law be made applicable in the state. Thereafter, it would require a reference made to Parliament by the president of India for amendment of the Jammu and Kashmir (Extension of Laws Act) 1956 so as to extend the new law to Jammu and Kashmir.

A law to protect the minorities draws its source from already existing powers granted to the centre, implicit in Article 355 of the Indian Constitution regarding the “Duty of the union to protect states against external aggression and internal disturbance” which provides that: “It shall be the duty of the union to protect every state against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the government of every state is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution”. This has generated considerable debate and will also be deliberated upon when the bill is put before the parliamentary Standing Committee. Detractors who speak only of India’s federalism baulk at admitting the ground realities during prolonged bouts of violence; such selective public amnesia negates years of bitter experience in dealing with outbreaks of majoritarian mob frenzy.

Over the decades the collective experience of civil libertarians and jurists at such times has been to ask for law and order enforcement to be temporarily handed over to the army. Assimilating this experience without impinging on the responsibilities of state governments to protect lives and property, the proposed law, under Chapter IV, envisages the creation of a National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation. The authority’s role will be to serve as a catalyst for implementation of the new law. Its functions will include receiving and investigating complaints of violence and dereliction of duty and monitoring the build-up of an atmosphere likely to lead to violence.

The National Authority cannot compel a state government to take action – in deference to the federal nature of law enforcement – but it can approach the courts for appropriate directions. There will also be state-level authorities, staffed, like the National Authority, by a process that the ruling party of the day cannot unduly influence. The monitoring of relief and rehabilitation of victims will be a major part of their responsibilities.

The creation of this new entity was incorporated in the draft bill after much deliberation with practitioners, including former judges who felt that without a body to supervise, monitor and properly intervene when smaller but recurring bouts of communal and targeted violence take place, state governments would continue to be lax, as we have seen even recently in Bihar (Forbesganj, June) Rajasthan (Bharatpur, September) and Uttarakhand (Rudrapur, October 2011).

The powers of this authority are recommendatory and in no way violate federal principles. Similarly, the state-level authorities have also been created in order to facilitate district-level inputs towards the prevention of violence and its containment as well as justice delivery. Moreover, the National Authority has no power to issue binding orders against any state government except for the purposes of providing information. The National Authority is only empowered to issue advisories and recommendations with which the concerned state government/public servants may disagree, the only condition being that the reasons for such disagreement must be recorded.

Since mid-2011 when the National Advisory Council (NAC) invited comments on the draft bill, many voices have been raised expressing concerns about some basic precepts of the proposed law. These concern, in the main, the definition of the victim group – religious and linguistic minorities and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes – and the creation of a National Authority to monitor the build-up and occurrence of targeted and communal violence, issue advisories, extract replies from the state governments and intervene in courts hearing the cases. The provisions on witness protection, the rights of victims during trials and the thorough scheme of compensation and reparation have been largely welcomed.

There are two questions of concern expressed among those, across the ideological spectrum, who have objected to the draft bill’s definition of the victim group. One of these voices disquiet about a law which, if it comes into existence, will divide people on the basis of minority and majority. The second objection is sharper; it asks whether a law premised on the assumption that a minority has never committed or will never commit acts of violence can be just or fair. It comes as no surprise that the second criticism was first made through an article by Arun Jaitley, the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha who is also a senior lawyer. Others who have vociferously echoed Jaitley’s criticism – with the sole exception of Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa who is also dead against the law – belong to India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or are among its votaries. Lending voice to this criticism is the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and its affiliates, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal.

Other protests against the bill have come from the leaders of some regional parties, such as West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress who appears to be more concerned with the role of the centre/National Authority under the proposed law and how this may impinge on the rights of state governments.

Let us first address the concern relating to the definition of the victim group.

Democracies, based as they are on electoral and representative politics, reflect the voice of different sections but do also privilege the majority. This majority is not always religious; it could be from a certain social stratum or caste or committed to a certain ideology. At their best, democracies maintain the balance of power while always giving space and protection to the minority voice, the single voice. Short of this delicate balance, democracy can tip over into the rule of the mob, a mobocracy. Values of constitutional governance, equality for all, especially equality before the law, are principles that could fall by the wayside when mob rule takes over. Can we in India – looking back with candour – accept that we have collectively succumbed to the rule of the mob?

While we rightly celebrate elections as a fundamental reaffirmation of the vibrant, live democracy that India is, the power of every individual’s right to vote can and has been subverted by the manifestation and legitimisation of brute majority power through the same electoral process that we celebrate.

Sober reflection reminds us that even while we cringe at categories like majority and minority, the anomalies of the very electoral victories we celebrate must force us to reconsider our views. Mass crimes have sat comfortably with electoral politics in India. And electoral discourse seems reluctant to propagate the principles of justice for all and discrimination against none.

Let us recall a moment in our history. In November 1984, within a short and bloody spell lasting about 72 hours, more than 3,000 Sikh residents of Delhi were massacred in cold blood. When Parliament convened in January the following year, no official condolence motion was moved to mark the massacre. And what is worse, among those who sat in the wells of the lower house, having ridden to victory in elections held just a month earlier, were Congress leaders HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Lalit Maken, men who, along with Sajjan Kumar, had been named as guilty of inciting mobs by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and People’s Union for Democratic Rights in their 1984 report ‘Who are the Guilty?’. (This was later corroborated by the testimonies and affidavits of victim survivors.)

Twenty-seven years have passed since then.

The four politicians identified as perpetrators of the 1984 Sikh massacres have never been punished. Instead, three of them were elected to Parliament within a month of the violence, from the city where they were accused of leading mobs, signalling democratic sanction for the brutal massacres. They had not only been given tickets by the ruling Congress party but Hindu voters, expressing brute majority support for their actions, had voted them in.

Should this brute democratic sanction of mob violence by the majority have gone legislatively unchecked?

Should Indian democracy not rise above political and partisan interests and enact a law that ensures protection of its minorities?

Following a similar pattern, those named as perpetrators of the violence against innocent Muslims in Bombay in 1992-1993 by Justice BN Srikrishna in his report on the post-Babri Masjid demolition violence in Bombay – Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena and its leaders – rode to power in the state of Maharashtra in 1995. Shiv Sena leader Madhukar Sarpotdar was elected member of Parliament from the Mumbai North-west constituency in 1996 and again in 1998. The man elected had been named in the Srikrishna Commission report as leading mobs, as was Gajanan Kirtikar, the Sena leader from Goregaon. The judge’s report also indicted 31 policemen who, instead of being prosecuted and punished, were elevated by a cynical Congress-Nationalist Congress Party regime that has ruled the state since 1999.

The genocide in Gujarat in 2002 and the near decade since has taken the “democratic” sanction for mob violence to new heights. The Concerned Citizens Tribunal – Gujarat 2002 in its findings held chief minister Narendra Modi to be “the chief author and architect” of the state-sponsored genocide. Modi not only rode to power in December 2002 and again in 2007 but he and the party that he represents have also shamelessly used these electoral victories to erase his guilt in the massacres. As chief minister and home minister, he is responsible for the subversion of justice in many pending cases and faces the possibility of being charge-sheeted as the main accused in a criminal complaint. The offences are as serious as destruction of official records and the appointment of public prosecutors with an ideological affiliation to the very groups that perpetrated the violence.

Here constitutional governance has been held to ransom by the very aspects of democracy, the electoral politics that we celebrate. Unchecked with each bout of violence, the subversion of the justice process has reached an all-time high. When majoritarianism creeps into systems of governance, legislative checks like those contained in the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill become vital.

It is therefore evident that one of the greatest challenges of our time – though by no means the only one – is how we in India equally protect all citizens. Can we safely say that there is no bias in the delivery of justice? Can we deny that during periodic bouts of targeted and communal violence over the years it is the minorities who have suffered the greatest loss of lives and property and who have also been denied justice? And that the perpetrators of such targeted crimes have got away unpunished?

Nowhere does the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill make the assumption that targeted violence can never be perpetrated by a minority group. There is no denying that in, say, Marad (Kerala), Malegaon (Maharashtra) or Bhiwandi (Maharashtra), Muslims were rioters. The bill simply reflects a legislative acknowledgement that when such incidents do occur, the police and the administration will behave in accordance with existing laws and will not fail to record accurate first information reports (FIRs), carry out thorough investigations and prosecute the guilty – which has been the sorry record of communal and targeted violence in India to date. If the criminal justice system is tardy and floundering for all Indians, when it comes to those in the minority, it is that much worse.

Hence the bill through its definition provisions provides that apart from the sections relating to remedy and reparation, all aspects that involve higher performance from the policeman and administrator are made applicable only if the victim is a member of the defined group. To ensure fair and non-discriminatory governance, the protected group comprises the religious and linguistic minorities and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

In 2009 about 50 Dalit organisations had collectively reviewed the functioning of the 20-year-old Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. In the course of this review, it was identified that among the many factors responsible for the failure in the act’s implementation was the absence of any provisions for pinning down the accountability of public servants. This coupled with the fact that in the caste hierarchy, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes represent the most deprived minority was the rationale for their inclusion in the protected group in the proposed law.

Apart from the Atrocities Act, we have in place the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 which was also a special legislative response to social reality and experience. Until this law was enacted, the amended Section 498A of the IPC was the section of criminal law invoked when domestic violence against women occurred. Many of those who had opposed the empowerment of women through this amendment had long argued for the repeal of Section 498A on the grounds that it had in a few cases been abused. Fortunately, the facts on the ground carried the day.

The BJP through Jaitley has also sought to project communal violence as a mere “law and order” problem even as it conveniently disregards the crucial element that allows communal violence to occur in the first instance, intensify in the second and fail to deliver justice in the third. They are equally outraged that the proposed law recommends that four of the seven members of the National Authority should, in the interests of representative governance, belong to minority communities.

The crucial component mentioned above – administrative and police bias – is blithely overlooked in Jaitley’s outraged arguments. This should come as no surprise, since his party rose to power on a wave of majoritarian mob frenzy and the crimes committed by BJP leaders (including a former deputy prime minister) in Faizabad-Ayodhya in 1992 and Gujarat in 2002 – to give only two examples – reflected the impunity of men secure in the knowledge that institutional tardiness and majoritarian bias would assist them in escaping prosecution. And punishment.

At a more intellectual level, the arguments proffered by sociopolitical commentator Ashutosh Varshney also appear to be mired in a frozen reality, three decades old. Unlike in the 1960s and 1970s when communal violence generally occurred in communally sensitive cities like Bhiwandi, Ahmedabad, Aligarh, etc – a hypothesis that Varshney uses – communal violence and serious eruptions of mob frenzy are today spreading to rural India and to towns and cities hitherto free from this malaise. A major reason for this is the widespread currency of majoritarian communalism which accompanied the BJP’s rise to power together with the moral failure of the “secular” Congress or the left to tackle the ideological onslaught. This encroachment by the majority, brutish and arrogant, has crept into our systems of governance, the administration and the police. While the proposed Communal and Targeted Violence Bill in no way pretends or purports to tackle the scourge of irrationality and prejudice, it certainly aims to hold to account those public servants who fail to abide by Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution, to protect the lives and liberties of innocent victims who are targeted simply because they belong to a minority group.

It is imperative that those concerned with justice and reparation join the campaign for the restoration of fair debate. Currently the proposed law has become the victim of hysterical propaganda – led, unsurprisingly, by players whose political trajectory gained momentum by legitimising irrational prejudice and even hatred, who rose to power on the wings of communal mob frenzy.

To enable a reasoned rational discourse on a long overdue law, the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill must be tabled in Parliament and be put before a Standing Committee forthwith. Any anomalies within it can be ironed out at that stage. We must not allow this process to be derailed by the same cynical political players who have gained political brownie points and mileage through the spread of hatred and the generation of mob frenzy.

P.S.

The above article from Communalism Combat is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.