Preventing sectarian violence

In the recently held meeting of National Integration Council (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 the opposition of both 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 for it. The ruling Party members were quiet as most of the opposition leaders criticized 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 Central Government in violence prevention, by playing an active role in controlling violence. Both the grounds of criticism are more because of biases and misconceptions rather than due to what the Bill contains and intends.

Communal violence has been one of the major problems the country is facing. It has been surfacing on the Indian political scene time and again. During the freedom movement, the communal forces, those aiming at an Islamic state or Hindu nation spread venom against the 'other' religious community and many major incidents of violence broke out. The communal forces matched each other brick by 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 all should have learnt the horrors of communal politics and communal propaganda of both sides. It was this communal politics which could not stand the torch of amity amongst religious communities symbolized by the life and preaching's of Mahatma Gandhi. He symbolized the opposition to communal politics. Gandhi's work for communal amity was the reason for his murder, which was a calculated move by communalists.

In Independent India communal violence has been going through various ups and downs and has started becoming worse from the decade of 1980s when the politics around Shah Bano-Ram Temple, and later the politics of Rath yatra and Babri demolition took center stage. Sectarian violence has a multilayered etiology. To grasp this phenomenon, to understand its genesis during pre Independence times we need to look at the politics of declining (feudal elements) and middle classes, as embodied in the expression of Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS. It is their politics which needs to be looked at closely. Since these communal formations were not for secular democratic India, they kept aloof from the struggle for Independence and focused on activities which spread hatred towards the 'other' religious community. The communal politics was at the base and hate propaganda against the 'other' was at the surface of their agenda, which was the core reason for 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; police in particular, infected by communal prejudices, became the vehicle of biased attitude towards the Muslim minority, the major victim of this violence.

The issue of violence is more complicated than just thinking of it in contrasting colors. There are shades and shades of reasons for precipitation of violence. The statistics of violence are galling and obvious. The first major one according to the Ministry of Home affairs data (1991) tells us that even when the Muslims are a minority (12 odd in 1991 and 13.4% in 2001), amongst the violence victims 80% were Muslims. In the Mumbai carnage of 1992-93 as per the study of Nirmala Niketan, College of social work the data matched with the national data, in addition it revealed that even the property which was destroyed belonged mostly to Muslims. After the Gujarat carnage and the later recurring violence, nearly 90% of the victims of violence are Muslims as per the latest estimates.

The other observation is that more than once, it appears or it is propagated, that the minority is instigating the violence. That they initiate it and then in turn they get bashed. Most of the inquiry commission reports, Madon (Bhiwandi Jalgaon, 1970) Joseph Vythyatil (Tellicherry), Jagmohan Reddy (Ahmadabad 1969) and others tell us that mostly, spontaneous looking riots are a part of the plan of the communal forces, who then benefit from the same by polarizing the majority votes around themselves. The greatest 'success' of this communal propaganda is that it has instilled the fear of the minority in the heart and minds of the majority. The scholarly work by the Police Officer, Dr. V.N.Rai does point out that the minority is often cornered to throw the first stone, which is then used as a pretext for unleashing the violence. Major inquiry commission reports the latest one of Justice Shrikrishna (Mumbai 1992-3) confirms the biased attitude of police machinery, yet again. Activists like Asghar Ali Engineer and others who have tried to conduct peace and harmony workshops with police officers have experienced the deep bias and prejudice with which the police force is afflicted.

The additional factor has been that many a Congress leader have used communal violence as an opportunist tool to safe guard their chair the power equation. On top of that, most of the violence has taken place when the Congress Governments are in power. Here the obvious understanding is that the communal forces sitting in the opposition know that violence in any particular area leads to polarization 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 business rivalry in places like Moradabad and Bhivandi. 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 very complicated but assumptions which have been at the root of the National Advisory Committee's undertones are very clear. There are laws which should prevent violence, and when violence has taken place should be able to deal with it and later provide rehabilitation and justice to the victims. What has been the obstacle to this? One, the attitude of political leadership, which not being very principled, 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 being the more pro-active player in letting the violence go on. So the first issue is the problems related to command responsibility and deliberate acts of omission by political leadership. The second being that the bureaucracy and police, as observed by inquiry commission reports, are partisan, biased, leading to further escalation of violence. Same factors play their role in the post violence scenario, where the victims are generally left in the lurch.

With these observations in mind, it becomes clear that communal violence, post independence is not the same as in the pre-independence era.  Currently it is a targeted violence, targeted for political goals and assisted by the attitude of political leadership, bureaucracy and police. So here identifying a group is not to divide the nation. It sounds very impressive to assert, "we don't see citizens as Hindus-Muslims', we see them as Indians. But a reality check defies this. To identify a minority group as the 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 brush the truth under the carpet, justice and peace are just not possible. It is nobody's claim that minority cannot attack the majority. The point is: the observation is that minority is being targeted. When domestic violence bill was thought of the argument was not that sometimes a woman also attacks a man, the point was most often women are the victims, they are the targets, 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 the 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 its own business of dividing communities along religious lines to get the upper hand in electing. The right wing forces are opposed to any of the affirmative action where the weaker section is identified and given protection. Still right wing, RSS and progeny, have already reconciled to the provisions of Domestic violence bill, provisions of Anti Dalit Atrocities laws. Similarly this Communal Violence prevention bill has based itself on the observation of the last six decades, so why this opposition. The reasons can clearly be seen in the vested interests of BJP types who want to promote their political agenda with the continuation of existing pattern. By identifying the targeted group and bypassing the 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 core of the new bill. It won't be very surprising that the communal forces which have benefitted by its mechanisms of spreading hate and orchestrating violence will be totally opposed to it, the surprise is why is the ruling party not sticking its neck out to bring peace and prevent violence through this bill, after its suitable modification after a debate in Parliament? The other issues of federalism do need to be addressed and rough edges of the bill can be smoothened to ensure that the Center 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 towards affirmative justice. (Issues in Secular Politics)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 October 2011 on page no. 13

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