What fits the bill — a hope or a mirage?

Illustration: Anand Naorem

The communal violence Bill is an act of faith — an affirmation by vulnerable groups for protection against targeted violence by politically and economically powerful sectarian groups. Understandably, it has been dubbed as ‘anti-majority’ by the BJP and has been criticised as a kneejerk response to the Gujarat violence of 2002-03. There is also a fear that it may alter the federal structure and adversely impact the autonomy of the states. But protection of minorities and vulnerable groups like tribals and Dalits is well within the Constitutional scheme. Hence, any provision to protect the secular fabric of the nation and the right of vulnerable groups to live in peace and harmony cannot be dubbed as an ‘anti-majority’ measure.

Successive governments have set up various commissions to secure this objective — commissions for minorities, for preventing atrocities against SC/STs, for protecting human rights and women’s rights. But most of them have been toothless and have failed to prevent violence and protect the vulnerable groups from systematic and targeted violence. While Gujarat provides one example, the violence unleashed against Christian tribals in Kandhamal, Odisha, is another example. The continuous violence against tribals in the Northeast by armed forces, and against Dalits by upper castes in almost every state cannot be ignored. The history of post-independence India is strewn with numerous cases where the ruling governments and the commissions constituted by it have failed in their duty to protect these groups.

A Bill that gives the vulnerable recourse to justice cannot be termed political opportunism

But faith is integral to human nature. Every violation rekindles a renewed hope for a just society. Hence the present Bill introduces a new concept of a national and state ‘authority’ with certain recommendatory powers and powers of action if the ruling government fails to act. It renders culpable the government functionaries for dereliction of duty by introducing the notion of ‘command responsibility’. This is a new concept for India, borrowed from other international instruments. It makes public officials who enjoy immunity, accountable. Reparations and witness protection have been clearly set out and include rescue, relief, compensation, restitution and rehabilitation of targeted victim populations.

The BJP’S response has also been short-sighted. By accusing the UPA government of drafting the Bill in the context of Gujarat, it has failed to take into account the political reality of any democracy: that the balance of power changes every five years. So a response in the current context may not be appropriate to assess the long-term benefits of the Bill.

The ‘National Authority’ is a civilian institution, appointed by the President with the consensus of the ruling and opposition parties. The majority of its members will be drawn from vulnerable and targeted groups that will help to repose faith in this institution. A Bill such as this, which makes a vulnerable segment within a political group feel as though they have an independent recourse to justice and reparation, cannot be brushed aside as ‘political opportunism’.

But despite its innovative provisions, will it actually deliver? Cynicism prevails even among those who have participated in the drafting process. The Act will function only to the extent that there is a political will to do so. Without it, it will be reduced to a paper tiger and a drain on the exchequer as it would require a huge financial commitment to make it functional, to create the necessary infrastructure at the Centre, state and district levels and a parallel process away from all existing government and statutory bodies. It also takes on several functions that are at present carried out by state functionaries and might thus absolve them of any liability and responsibility of initiating criminal prosecutions and carrying out rescue and rehabilitations. So let’s wish that the hope does not turn into a mirage!

Flavia Agnes is a human rights lawyer and activist.


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