The communal violence bill, pitched as a landmark law, is stuck because of divisions in the polity. To understand this, we need to step back
IN A recently held meeting of the National Integration Council, in September 2011, the discussion on The Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparation) Bill 2011 was on the top of the agenda. While the leaders of opposition of both the houses of parliament, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, came down heavily on the draft Bill, there were not too many members of the council speaking in support of it. The ruling party members were quiet as most of the opposition leaders criticised the proposed draft. The main reasons behind this criticism are the definition of the minority group, which presumably divides the country along linguistic, caste and religious lines; and the role of the central government in the prevention of violence, by playing an active role in controlling it. Both the grounds of criticism are more out of bias and misconceptions rather than out of what the Bill contains and intends to do.
Communal violence has been one of the major problems India is faced with. It has been surfacing on the Indian horizon time and over. During the freedom movement, the communal forces, those aiming for an Islamic state or a Hindu nation, spread venom against the other religious community and many major incidents of violence broke out. The communal forces matched each other brick for brick. The resulting violence was a point of major tragedy. The violence following the tragedy of Partition should be etched in the conscience of the sub-continent, as a tragedy from which we should have all learnt the horrors of communal politics and communal propaganda from both the sides. These communal politics could not stand the amity amongst religious communities symbolised by the life and preachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He symbolised the opposition to communal politics. Gandhi was murdered because of his work, in a calculated move by the perpetrators of communal politics.
In independent India, communal violence has been going on through various ups and downs and has started worsening from the 1980s when the politics around Shah Bano and the Ram Temple, and later the politics of Rath yatra and the Babri Masjid demolition, took the centrestage. The sectarian violence has a multilayered etiology. To grasp this phenomenon, to understand its genesis during the pre-Independence times, we need to look at the politics of the declining feudal elements and the middle-classes, as embodied by the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. We need to look closely at their politics. Since these communal formations were not for secular democratic India, they kept aloof from the struggle for independence and focused on activities that spread hatred towards the other religious community. Communal politics was at the base and hate propaganda against the other was at the surface of their agenda. This was the core reason for the violence. This violence kept on getting precipitated by various provocations. After independence, communal propaganda was gradually made part of the social common sense against minorities and the state machinery, the police in particular, was infected by communal prejudices. They became the vehicle for a biased attitude towards the Muslim minority, the major victim of this violence.
The issue of violence is more complicated than just looking at it in contrasting colours. There are shades and shades of reasons for precipitation of violence. The statistics of violence are galling and obvious. The first major one based on the Ministry of Home Affairs data (1991) tells us that even when the Muslims are a minority (12 per cent or so in 1991 and 13.4 per cent in 2001), amongst the violence victims 80 per cent were Muslims. In the Mumbai carnage of 1992-93, as per a study of the Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, the data matched with the national data. In addition, it revealed that even the property that was destroyed belonged more to Muslims. After the Gujarat carnage and the later recurring violence, nearly 90 per cent of the violence victims are Muslims as per the newest estimates.
It won’t be surprising if the communal forces, which have benefitted by mechanisms of spreading hate and orchestrating violence, oppose the Bill. The surprise is the Congress not sticking its neck out for this Bill
The other observation is that at more times than not, it appears or it is propagated, that the minority is instigating the violence. That they are initiating it and then in turn they get the bashing. Most the inquiry commission reports, Madon (Bhiwandi Jalgaon, 1970) Joseph Vythyatil (Tellicherry), Jagmohan Reddy (Ahmedabad 1969) and others tell us that mostly the spontaneous-looking riots are a part of the plan of the communal forces, who then benefit from the same by polarising the majority votes around themselves. The greatest success of this communal propaganda is that it has instilled the fear of the minority in the hearts and minds of the majority. The scholarly work by the police officer VN Rai points out that the minority is often cornered into throwing the first stone, which is then used as a pretext for unleashing violence. Major inquiry commission reports, the newest one of Justice Srikrishna (Mumbai 1992- 1993) confirms the biased attitude of the police machinery yet again. Activists like Asghar Ali Engineer and others who have tried to have peace and harmony workshops with police officers have experienced the deep bias with which the police force is afflicted.
AN ADDITIONAL factor has been that many Congress leaders have used communal violence as an opportunist tool to settle inhouse power equations. On the top of that, most of the violence has taken place when Congress governments are in power. Here, the obvious understanding is that the communal forces sitting in opposition know that the violence in a particular area leads to polarisation of communities along religious lines and benefits communal parties in the short and long run. Recently (2009) the violence in Maharashtra in Miraj Sangli area following the violence on the issue of hoardings depicting Shivaji and Afzal Khan led to increased electoral strength of the parties with communal agenda. It is also true that in the Muslim majority areas, there have been more incidents of violence. These areas are more sensitive to violence. The major reasons for this have been the business rivalry in the places like Moradabad and Bhiwandi. The other reason has been the majority communal force asserting itself and meeting with resistance from the local minority communal forces.
So, overall, the picture is complicated but the assumptions at the root of the National Advisory Committee’s undertones are clear. There are laws that should prevent violence, and if violence has taken place, should be able to deal with it and offer rehabilitation and justice to the victims. What has been the obstacle to it? One, the attitude of the political leadership, which not being very principled and more oriented to power equations, permits the violence to go on. Here, Congress party leaders are not exempt the difference being that the bjp leadership is more proactive in letting the violence go on. So the first issue is the problem related to command responsibility and deliberate acts of omission by the political leadership. The second being that the bureaucracy and police, as observed by inquiry commission reports, are partisan and lead to further escalation of violence. The same factors play a role in the postviolence scenario, where the victims are generally left in the lurch.
With these observations in mind, it becomes clear that communal violence after independence is not the same as in the pre-independence era. Currently, it is targeted
violence, targeted for political goals and assisted by the attitude of the political leadership, bureaucracy and police. So here, identifying a group is not to divide the nation. It sounds impressive to assert that we don’t see citizens as Hindus or Muslims, we see them as Indians. But a reality check defies this. To identify a minority group as a victim and targeted one is not to divide the nation but to grapple with the reality so that it can be dealt with. Whenever we try to put the truth under the carpet, justice and peace are not possible. It is nobody’s claim that the minority cannot attack the majority. The point is that the minority is being targeted. When a domestic violence bill was thought of, the argument was not that sometimes a woman also attacks a man, the point was that most often women are the victims, they are the targets and so we need to protect them by special provisions. Was it meant to break the home by identifying man and woman separately?
On the contrary, only by indentifying the targeted gender, the Bill can be given solid foundations and be effective in preventing violence against women.
This argument, that to define targeted minority is to divide the nation along religious lines, is a mechanistic one. It also hides the intentions of majoritarian communal forces to carry on with their business of dividing the communities along religious lines to gain at the electoral level. The rightwing forces are opposed to any of the affirmative action where the weaker section is identified and given protection. Still, the rightwing, the rss and progeny, have already reconciled to the provisions of the domestic violence bill and the provisions of laws on anti-Dalit atrocities. Similarly, the communal violence prevention bill has based itself on the observations of the past six decades. So why this opposition? The reasons can clearly be seen in the vested interests of the bjp and its supporters who want to promote their political agenda with the continuation of existing patterns. By identifying the targeted group and bypassing existing weaknesses, we will definitely be able to control communal violence in the future.
This seems to be the key point of the Bill; this is the kernel of the new Bill. It won’t be surprising if the communal forces, which have benefitted by mechanisms of spreading hate and orchestrating violence, will be totally opposed to it. The surprise is why the ruling party is not sticking its neck out to bring peace and prevent violence through this Bill, by suitable modifications after a debate in parliament? Other issues of federalism need to be addressed and rough edges of the Bill can be smoothened to ensure that the Centre does not overstep its mandate, but is still able to ensure that states discharge their duties properly. There is an urgent need that the Bill be debated in parliament, smoothened out, and brought in as a step in affirmative justice.
Ram Puniyani is Communal harmony activist based in Mumbai.
Tehalka oct 4 2011