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Published in the 1-15 July 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Law on communalism

By Zaigham Kazmi <>

The Milli Gazette Online

According to media reports, the new draft law on communalism has two important features. One, it allows the Centre to interfere in the maintenance of law and order in a communally disturbed area. The Center can virtually take over the law and order of that particular area by deploying armed forces and appointing one or more central officers to function as coordinators. As of today, the Centre can only help the state if the latter requests it. The only other option is to dismiss the state government and impose governer's rule. Two, it gives armed forces extraordinary powers to arrest, search, seize and even shoot. Moreover, it calls for special courts to try cases and arm them with the power to order externment of people 'likely to commit a scheduled offence'.

States often have a tendency to veer towards extreme positions due to the localized nature of the politics. On the other hand, the central politics usually represent the national mood which is more mature and moderate. The contrast is apparent in contemporary Indian politics. If Vajpeyee and Manmohan Singh represent the national face, states are represented by the likes of Rabri, Modi, Uma and Jaya etc. The Centre can use its overriding powers to bring states in tune with the national policies at times of need. During civil rights movement, the US federal government had to use federal marshalls to enforce law when some southern states took a confrontational stand.

The power to directly control law and order in a communally disturbed area bypassing the state government becomes even more significant in the presence of coalition politics. These days the supporting cast mainly consists of regional parties. These parties are averse to the imposition of governor's rule in principle. But they will be willing to support partial intervention of localized nature.

Although the BJP defended Modi's handling of the riots and continues to do so, many of the leaders have openly admitted Gujarat as a blot on their record. The Congress is even more aware today of its mistakes in the Delhi anti-Sikh riots. It doesn't even try to defend its actions. The fact is that both these parties did not realize at the time what they were doing. The Congress had been treating the country as its fiefdom. The BJP was in a bind if it should take the extreme step of dismissing its own chief minister. Although, the BJP did win the state elections in Gujarat, it lost out in the national elections. One can only hope that if put in the same situation again both of these parties will act differently, especially if armed with a bill that allows them to interfere without embarrassing a chief minister belonging to their own party.

The part about "extra-ordinary powers" should concern everyone. Such powers usually have opposite impact. "Armed forces act" has failed to quell rebellion in Kashmir and North-East. It has rather increased the alienation. The country needs to restrain the security forces and not give them more powers. As it stands today, even without these powers police and other security forces get away with murders very often. Remember Hashimpura.

It can be argued that if such draconian measures are required to fight terrorism then why not use them to fight communalism. But it is not a principled stand. Liberals will never be able to argue against "armed forces act" and its abuse if they allow similar powers to creep in "law-on-communalism".

The Muslim community has to be specially cautious. It must realise that laws don't change the fingers behind the triggers. Given the past experience in handling of communal riots, it will not be surprising if Muslims end up being the victims of these extraordinary powers. They will not have a moral right to complain against such measures later if they support it today.

With this law the UPA government is putting communalism at par with terrorism. It is an important realization. Communalism has gained ground so much only because so far it has been dismissed as reactionary and not considered a danger to national security. Communalism is as much a law and order issue as a socio-political issue. Whether one likes it or not, communal parties occupy an important political space. The war against communalism must be fought in the social-political domain. 

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