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24 October, 2011

Hurdles to communal harmony

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A Bill drafted by the National Advisory Council headed by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who is also chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, which rules India, to check communal violence has met with wide opposition.

Called the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, the measure seeks to enhance the state’s accountability and check discriminatory use of its powers in the context of attacks on religious and linguistic minorities and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The Hindu rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close links with it, are in the forefront of the campaign against it. They view it as one that targets them.

When the Bill was placed by the National Integration Council last month, the BJP leaders were joined by their National Democratic Alliance colleagues, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal–United) and Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal (Akali Dal) and by Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal).

Leaders of the Trinamool Congress, which is a UPA constituent, and the Left parties also criticised the Bill. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party) avoided taking a stand, saying the time was not opportune to comment on it.

Harsh Mander, a member of the NAC, later complained that when the Bill came under attack in the NIC, the government failed to defend it.

Few countries have as varied and complex a society as India’s. The Hindus who constitute 80 per cent of the population are divided into numerous caste groups with distinct identities. Hindi, designated as the official language in the Constitution, is spoken by only 41 per cent of the people. About 54 per cent speak a dozen other major languages. The remaining five per cent speak a large number of minor languages, some of which are facing extinction.

Sectarian conflicts, confined to specific areas, are quite common, and occasionally there are big conflagrations like the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 and the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat after the burning of RSS-mobilised volunteers in a rail coach at Godhra in 2002.

Those who instigate and perpetrate communal violence almost always go unpunished. This happens not because there is no law to deal with them but because the official agencies are in complicity with them or powerless to act against them as they enjoy political patronage.

Those indicted in the anti-Sikh riots were leaders of the Congress. The prime movers behind the Gujarat riots were RSS and BJP functionaries. An officer who testified that Chief Minister Narendra Modi had asked the police to let the Hindus wreak vengeance is now facing the wrath of the administration.

The law already has provisions to deal with sectarian violence. The Indian Penal Code has a section on “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language etc and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” It has proved ineffective for two reasons. One is that the punishment prescribed is only three to five years of imprisonment and fine. The other is that instances of successful prosecution are few.

The proposed law provides for a new category of offence, namely “communal and targeted violence”. It will apply when violence is directed against anyone by virtue of membership of a group.

It seeks to set up a National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation (NACHR) and similar bodies at the state level. Apart from monitoring cases of communal violence and redressing grievances of affected people, it will have power to penalise officials for acts of commission as well as acts of omission.

Critics have raised two serious objections to the Bill. One is that it will undermine the republic’s federal character inasmuch as it will allow the Centre to proclaim ‘internal emergency’ and step in to deal with communal violence in a state. The other is that since the law will apply only to violence committed by a majority group against a minority group, and not to violence committed by a minority group against a majority group, in effect it creates separate laws to deal with similar offences by different groups.

Attempts to check communal violence must begin with meaningful efforts to eliminate communal thinking, which is sustained by cynical exploitation of caste and religious sentiments by political parties.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 24, 2011.

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