The provisions in the Communal Violence Bill are intended to strengthen the bureaucracy by giving it a framework within which to operate

The clearing of the controversial Communal Violence Bill, a watered-down version of the National Advisory Council’s draft, by the Union Cabinet at a special three-hour-long meeting on December 16 may have come too late for it to be enacted by the 15th Lok Sabha. At best, the government can introduce it in the Rajya Sabha, when Parliament meets next year — so that it stays alive for the next Lok Sabha — after which, in all probability, it will be sent to a Standing Committee for an examination of its provisions.

But the political debate that the attempt to legislate it has aroused in the last few weeks is worth looking at for one reason alone — the continued inability of elected State governments, despite the existing laws that they say are sufficient to tackle communal violence and its fallout, to deal with such outbreaks.

Take the exchange of hostilities in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district in September this year: it left 62 persons dead and — even more shocking — forced another 50,955 to flee their villages to set up home in 58 temporary camps, a majority of which are run by Muslim organisations as virtually all those displaced belong to the minority community, all within three hours’ driving distance of the national capital.

Two months on, there are reports of children and infants dying because of adverse weather conditions, of resistance by khap panchayats to displaced Muslims purchasing land in their vicinity to create fresh settlements, and of the Shamli district administration asking 2,877 riot victims living in what it describes as “illegal camps” to return to their villages without ensuring their future safety there.

Indeed, on December 23, at the second of five consultation meetings called by the Congress to draft its election manifesto for 2014, the fate of the Communal Violence Bill was repeatedly raised by participants, with the recent outbreak of sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar dominating the discussions. Among the many points raised was the need to create conditions so that the over 40,000 Muslims still living in relief camps in Muzaffarnagar are able to return to their homes.

If the Akhilesh Yadav–led Samajwadi Party government’s record in Uttar Pradesh in dealing with the riots and its aftermath has been abysmal, the fact that the Human Rights Cell of the BJP’s U.P. unit publicly felicitated its members, including MLAs Sangeet Singh Som, Suresh Rana, Kunwar Bhartendra Singh Som and 34 other party workers, all of whom were arrested in connection with the Muzaffarnagar riots, has virtually gone unnoticed. When the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, addressed a public rally in Agra two days later on November 21, Mr. Rana and Mr. Som were again honoured on the same stage, minutes before he arrived.

The contention of State governments that a Central law would impinge on their powers has merit only if one regards such outbreaks of violence merely as an issue of law and order. But the SP government’s failure to check the bloodshed and prevent the exodus from the villages, and the BJP’s role in provoking and fanning the violence would suggest that it has been a case of politics by other means.

Communal card

The riots in Muzaffarnagar have communally polarised western U.P., splitting, ground reports say, even the administration and the lower judiciary on sectarian lines. The political advantage in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election in the State, these reports suggest, will, therefore, go to those who play the communal card.

For instance, Mr. Modi, who has been silent on the Muzaffarnagar riots, has, however, been vocal on the Communal Violence Bill ever since the Centre dispatched copies of a draft to State governments last month. By making public the contents of a sharply-worded letter he wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his objections to the Bill a day after exit polls predicted a wipe-out for the Congress in four key north-Indian States and following it up by writing to fellow chief ministers to gather support against the Bill, Mr. Modi has ensured that his campaign does not flag. By vigorously opposing the Union government’s efforts to enact an anti-communal violence bill, he has also sent out a subtle message of majoritarianism to his key constituents, couched in the language of federalism.

Mr. Modi writes in his letter that “there have been no communal riots or major incidents of communal violence in Gujarat for the last ten years”, but he doesn’t mention the fact that the victims of the carnage in 2002 in his State have yet to get justice. He also takes umbrage at the provisions seeking to make government servants accountable, saying it will demoralise them, when in fact the new provisions are intended to strengthen the bureaucracy by giving it a framework within which to operate. Indeed, the new bill, while making public servants accountable for any acts of commission and omission while handling communal violence, adds a caveat: those who refuse to obey the unlawful orders of their superiors will not be held responsible for dereliction of duty.

The Congress, on its part, had in its 2004 manifesto committed itself to enacting “a comprehensive law on social violence in all its forms and manifestations, providing for investigations by a Central agency, prosecution by Special Courts and payment of uniform compensation for loss of life, honour and property”. In 2009, the party’s manifesto promised “the right to compensation and rehabilitation for all victims of communal, ethnic and caste violence on standards and levels that are binding on every government”, and proposed a law to empower the National Human Rights Commission “to monitor investigation and trial in all cases of communal and caste violence”.

Community-neutral

In the reworked version, now named the Prevention of Communal Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2013, the Union government has taken on board the criticism heaped on the earlier draft by the BJP (that it was anti-Hindu) and by State governments (that it militated against the spirit of federalism). It has dropped the word “minority”, made the definition of a group affected by communal violence community-neutral and left the prevention and control of communal violence essentially to the States, with the Centre only playing a coordinating role.

The Bill may be flawed, but, surely, pondering over a document that wishes to create a robust accountability system and seeks to lay down national standards for the entire spectrum of provisions for victims of communal violence — including rescue, relief, compensation, rehabilitation, resettlement, restitution, reparation and recognising the rights of internally displaced persons — cannot be a bad thing, what with Muzaffarnagar still fresh in our minds.

Mr. Modi’s accusation against the Congress that it has sprung this bill a few months before the next general elections to strengthen its base among the Muslims may not be entirely unfair. But the nature of his arguments underscore the fact that this is a battle not so much to preserve the federal character of this country as to secure the votes of the majority community at the expense of the fraternity and pluralism that keeps the country united.

smita.g@thehindu.co.in

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