Let’s not accentuate the divide



DR RAM MANOHAR LOHIA never tired of telling his followers that “in a struggle between the rich and poor, be sure to support the poor. So also in the fight between the upper caste and the Dalit, or the majority and the minority, or the husband and wife, come out in support of the weaker of the two and invariably you would have done the right thing”. Dr Lohia’s philosophy was based on the premise that the more powerful one is, the more likely one is to misuse that power to inflict injustice on the weak. He also believed that true courage in public life meant supporting the weak and the dispossessed against the powerful and mighty, be it person or State.

The debate rages on VHP activists protest against the Communal Violence Bill in Amritsar
The debate rages on VHP activists protest against the Communal Violence Bill in Amritsar
Photo: AFP

History reminds us that the truly free and just society is one where the liberties of its most vulnerable citizens are protected. In the context of the minorities, Wendell Phillips, the great 19th century American abolitionist, who fought relentlessly for the rights of the Native Americans and Afro-Americans, expressed the view that governments essentially “exist to protect the rights of the minorities”. Alfred E Smith went even further in advocating that “the law in a democracy means the protection of the rights and liberties of the minorities”.

Closer home, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke fervently about protecting the minorities and cautioned that by virtue of numbers and in other ways “it is the responsibility of the dominant community not to use its position in any way which might prejudice the secular ideal of the nation”.

It is axiomatic that only the majority grouping in a communally sensitive environment can change the nature of the polity, subverting the basic principles of democracy and secularism. Our founding fathers inscribed their concern for the welfare of the minorities, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Fundamental Rights under Article 15(1) of the Constitution.

It has not gone according to the script. Post-Independence India has seen a myriad communal and caste conflagrations that have heightened the fears and anxieties of the weaker sections of society. The brutal reality is that the minorities, SCs and STs have been the prime victims of communal and targeted violence. One statistic says it all. It is estimated that since Independence, minorities constitute more that 90 percent of the victims of communal violence. Far from the situation improving with time, the worst incidents of communal and targeted violence have occurred in the past 30 years. The Sikh massacre of 1984, the 1993 Mumbai killings, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and the Kandhamal killings of 2008 are blood-curdling examples of the terrible atrocities committed against minorities. And in each case, the State has been complicit in the mayhem.

The National Advisory Council’s draft Communal Violence Bill is an ambitious legislation designed to ensure that all citizens enjoy the protection of the State regardless of religion, language or caste. The main focus of the Bill is to put in place mechanisms that would eliminate institutional bias against the weaker sections and “breach the culture of impunity”. Notwithstanding the noble intentions behind the draft Bill, will it improve the situation for these troubled groups?

No sooner did the draft Bill go into the public domain than all hell broke loose in cyberspace. The dominant refrain of the opponents of the Bill is that it is another example of minority appeasement. As usual, the charge is led by the BJP who refuse to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths about communal and targeted violence; that it is the minorities and Dalits who bear the brunt; that there is an institutional bias against them. The opponents of the Bill claim that it is drafted in an idiom that seemingly indicts the majority community for the communal riots in the country, although the draft Bill nowhere classifies any particular group to be the perpetrators of communal and targeted violence.

The critics, including BJP’s Arun Jaitley, contend that by drafting legislation that is aimed at protecting only one section of the people, the Bill will promote and sustain the communal divide. This is specious reasoning as this is not the first time that legislation has been put in place to protect particularly vulnerable sections of society. One readily recalls that the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 and the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, were passed to protect these specified groups from the injustices perpetrated mainly by members of the majority community. The BJP did not protest the passing of those Acts. Clearly their opposition to this Bill stems from their pathological distrust of minorities. A typical perverse, extremist view goes thus: “If this draft Bill becomes law, it will become constitutionally accepted that only Hindus cause riots… Hindus will be at the receiving end of the stick.” The BJP’s reaction is designed as always to whip up animosity against the minorities by any means, justice and truth be damned.

The success of the Bill depends on those very agencies that have failed to deliver justice so far

One cannot ignore the bogus cry of “minority appeasement” that has subsumed all other aspects of the debate. Like the BJP, a large section of the minorities are apprehensive about the impact of the draft Bill but for entirely different reasons. They are painfully aware that in the current public discourse, a cause does not have to be just in order to be popular. How else can one explain the fact that the very dispensation responsible for the genocide of the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 won two successive Assembly elections thereafter with a massive mandate? This was certainly not a one-off case. The Congress swept to power in the immediate aftermath of the Sikh massacre, despite its foot soldiers being responsible for the killings and the destruction. The gory happenings at Kandhamal in 2008 did not affect the party in power, which won the next election with a thumping majority. A recurring refrain heard during those terrible inhuman atrocities was simply “they deserve it”. This hard-hearted response most painfully demonstrates the enormous divide that separates the communities in times of communal crisis. Understandably then, the minorities are averse to legislation of this kind that will facilitate the fundamentalist forces to instigate a frenzy against them.

It is significant that the draft Bill seeks to ensure equality in the working of the law not only for non-dominant groups in the unit of the State, but also for all Dalits and tribals across the country, although there is already the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to address their problems. Was the clubbing of the Dalits and tribals with minorities in the draft Bill aimed at making the Bill less pointed in favour of the minorities in order to make it more acceptable? There is every reason to suspect that the authors were keenly aware that a Bill meant exclusively for minority groups, although thoroughly justified, would raise a storm and hence the broadbasing to include SCs and STs. But this has not helped matters as the opponents have, in any case, reduced the discussion on the Bill to the question of “minority appeasement”.

Nowhere to hide Minorities constitute more that 90 percent of the victims of communal violence in independent India
Nowhere to hide Minorities constitute more that 90 percent of the victims of communal violence in independent India
Photo: AP

The minorities and the SCs and STs are heartily sick of blueprints for their betterment in the form of Laws, Acts and Commissions of Inquiry because they invariably remain frozen as impotent good intentions. The most sacred of our laws, the Constitution contains a number of Articles that guarantee the rights of minorities and weaker sections to lead lives of dignity and equality. But they continue to be victimised. For instance, legislation such as the Untouchability (Offences) Act (1955) has hardly changed anything for the better notwithstanding the fact that the offences are cognisable and can be tried summarily. The annual reports of the Protection of the Civil Rights Act show that atrocities against these downtrodden sections of society are still rampant but the rate of conviction is less that 5 percent that is a sad commentary on the investigation and prosecution in such cases.

COMMISSIONS OF Inquiry have also made nothing happen. The Srikrishna Commission report on the Mumbai genocide of 1992-93 squarely indicted the Shiv Sena and its boss for provoking the killings. It also named 15 police officers including the then Joint Commissioner of Police and 16 constables for their delinquency during the riots. Not one of them has been brought to book. It is clear that no matter how stringent the law, justice can never be meted out if the agencies of the State do not wish to implement those laws.

The dominant refrain of the critics is that the Bill is yet another example of minority appeasement

In the draft Bill, all powers and duties of investigation, prosecution and trial remain with the state government. The advisories and recommendations of the National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation are not binding on state governments. When the existing laws relating to communal and targeted violence are being flouted with impunity, there is no purpose whatsoever in framing another Act that depends for its success on those very agencies that have failed to deliver justice in the past. Rigorous implementation of the existing laws is what is needed, not a new law that would act as a shot in the arm for the rabid communalist.

The minorities see the draft Bill as much too closely associated with the Congress that has time and again been effusive in its promises to the minorities but woefully inadequate in fulfilling them. One readily recalls the pious proclamations that accompanied the setting up of the Sachar Committee in 2005 to analyse the social, economic and educational status of Muslims in India and identify areas of intervention by the government. The report is in cold storage, as is the report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities headed by Justice Ranganath Mishra. The government would better serve the interests of the minorities in particular by acting on the recommendations of these two committees instead of fanning the flames of communal disharmony with the draft Bill on Communal and Targeted Violence.

Abdul Khaliq is General Secretary, Lok Janshakti Party.


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