India India Divided Over Communal Violence Bill


Jun 1, 2004
India divided over communal violence bill
By Sudha Ramachandran

Communal violence Bill will only divide communities: BJP

BANGALORE - India is on the brink of enacting legislation that will seek justice for minorities of all categories when they become victims of targeted, mass violence.

Crafted by the National Advisory Council (NAC), the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011, will be introduced in parliament during the upcoming monsoon session.

The bill aims at creating a framework for preventing pogroms such as the attacks on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and the provision of relief for victims of such violence. It has kicked up a storm with some people criticizing it as "draconian" and "anti-Hindu" and others dismissing it as "toothless and meaningless".

Broadly, the bill targets acts that result in injury and were directed against persons because of their affiliation to any group. Such acts include sexual assault, hate propaganda, torture and organized communal violence. The bill creates a National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice, and Reparation, charged with preventing acts of communal violence and monitoring investigations into incidents. It also covers the punishment of officials who fail to discharge their duties in an unbiased manner during outbreaks of such violence.

Communal violence has wracked India for decades. Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 was accompanied by horrific violence between Hindus and Sikhs on the one hand and Muslims on the other, leaving a million dead and over 10 times that number homeless.

Since independence, there have been countless instances of communal violence. In the 2005-09 period alone, 648 people were killed and 11,278 injured in 4,030 such incidents, according to the PRS Legislative Research website. Communal clashes during this period peaked in 2008 with 943 cases being reported that year.

Communal violence in India is rarely spontaneous. It is mostly engineered.

Most clashes have been between Hindus and Muslims but Hindu-Christian violence too is not uncommon. While people of all religious communities suffer during these riots, it is the minorities - Muslims, Sikhs, and in recent years Christians, who constitute 13.43%, 1.87% and 2.34% of the population respectively - who have borne the brunt.

Some of the worst communal pogroms have occurred in the past three decades. In 1984, following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, mobs led by politicians from the ruling Congress party incited and organized the burning and looting of property and killing of Sikhs in Delhi and other parts of North India. Around 3,000 Sikhs were killed. The government did nothing to halt the violence for at least three days. Indira's son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, even justified the violence, declaring that "when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little".

When the Babri Masjid, a famous mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindu nationalists in December 1992, riots broke out in various parts of the country. Mumbai suffered the worst with around 900 people killed, about 575 of them Muslims.

A decade later, Gujarat convulsed with communal violence when mobs led by ministers and politicians of the state's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its fraternal organizations attacked Muslims and destroyed their property. Chief Minister Narendra Modi's government did little to stop the violence. In fact, police were reportedly instructed at a meeting that they allow Hindus to "vent their anger" against Muslims over an "attack" on a train, the Sabarmati Express, which was set alight a few days earlier, resulting in the death of around 59 passengers, mainly Hindu.

Rarely during communal violence have those targeted got state protection. Police ignore calls for help and refuse to register cases filed by victims. Seldom have the guilty been brought to justice. According to Harvinder Singh Phoolka, a senior Supreme Court advocate who has been fighting for justice on behalf of victims of the 1984 riots, "Out of 2,733 officially admitted murders [in the anti-Sikh violence of 1084], only nine cases led to convictions." Twenty-seven years since the pogrom, just over 20 of the accused have been convicted - a conviction rate of less than 1%.

What is more, rarely have victims received the relief they are entitled to.

If communal violence occurs and is not controlled immediately it is because the police and local authorities refuse to do their duty, points out Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu.

"What we need, thus, is not so much a new law defining new crimes (although that would be useful too) but a law to ensure that the police and bureaucrats and their political masters follow the existing law of the land. In other words, we need a law that punishes them for discriminating against citizens who happen to be minorities," he writes.

And this is what the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence bill sets out to do.

Not only does it create stern punishments for public servants for dereliction of duty towards victims, the bill also holds their superiors accountable. "Where it is shown that continuous widespread or systematic unlawful activity has occurred," the bill says, "it can be reasonably presumed that the superior in command of the public servant whose duty it was to prevent the commission of communal and targeted violence, failed to exercise supervision ... and shall be guilty of the offence of breach of command responsibility."

With the bill providing for sentences of up to 10 years imprisonment for breach of command responsibility, "superiors will hopefully be deterred from allowing a Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002 to happen on their watch," Varadarajan says.

India's constitution declares the country to be secular. However, institutional bias against religious and linguistic minorities is deeply entrenched, making them vulnerable to violence.

The Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill seeks to change this in several ways.

It describes "communal and targeted violence" as that acts that are "knowingly directed against any person by virtue of his or her membership of any group, which destroys the secular fabric of the nation" and then goes on to define "group" as "a religious or linguistic minority, in any State in the Union of India, or Scheduled Castes [Dalits] and Scheduled Tribes."

In other words, only violence against a minority community is considered communal violence.

The law also makes it obligatory that at least four of the seven member posts in the National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation belong to a minority community.

The bill's attempt to correct institutional bias against religious and linguistic minorities has drawn fire from Hindu nationalists, who see it as evidence of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's appeasement of Muslims. They are asking why violence against the majority community should not be considered communal.

Social activist Ram Puniyani draws attention to "concrete realities" in Indian society to justify the bill's focus on minorities. The minorities have after all suffered disproportionately during communal violence. Muslims comprise 90% of victims of violence, he says.

Besides, the bill speaks of "a religious and linguistic minority in any state" in India. Hindus are an overwhelming majority - 80.46% - nationwide but constitute a minority in seven states, including Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland. They too are thus covered by the bill.

An earlier draft of the bill had irked secular sections as well. It had defined communal violence as that which has destroyed India's secular fabric. This prompted criticism that the bill raised the bar for violence to be regarded as communal too high rendering it meaningless. After all it is arguable whether any incident of communal violence has actually destroyed India's secular fabric.

Responding to criticism, the NAC has now made 49 amendments to its earlier draft. In its definition of communal and targeted violence it has dropped the reference to "destruction of the secular fabric". It has also deleted a clause in the earlier draft that allowed the federal government to unilaterally intervene in communal situations in states as it had raised concern over its implications for the working of the country's federal structure.

The NAC has, however, ignored the right-wing's criticism and stuck to its focus on minorities in the bill. This could mean that the bill will come up against fierce opposition in parliament from parties like the BJP.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.


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