NIC debate on Communal Violence Bill and recent riots

The Communal Violence Bill was the first item on the agenda of National Integration Council meeting held in Delhi on 10th September 2011 and almost all speakers expressed their views on the Bill. As expected the opposition leader Mrs. Sushma Swaraj of the BJP led the attack followed by Mr. Arun Jaitly, Opposition leader in Rajya Sabha. Both of them maintained that this bill divides Indians into majority and minority and this polarization is extremely harmful, in fact disastrous for the country.

What was more surprising was that Mr.Sharad Yadav of JDU was no less sparing in attacking the Bill and said with this Bill India, like the Mughal rule would have two laws, one for minorities and one for the majority and minorities will be favoured over the majority. He also totally opposed the Bill and even said when communal riots are not taking place (sic). According to Mr. Sharad Yadav India has already become riot-free.

In response to these attacks from these three opposition stalwarts I said, in my presentation that I was not surprised at what Mrs. Swaraj and Arun Jaitly said as it was quite expected from BJP leaders but was surprised that Mr. Sharad Yadav not only agreed with BJP leaders but also maintained that what is the need for the Bill when no riots are taking place in India.

I said either Mr. Yadav was not reading news papers these days or is deliberately hiding facts in order to oppose the Bill. He knows best what the truth is. Let alone the many riots which have taken place in India what has been happening in Rajasthan is alarming enough. In September 2010 two riots took place in Sarada and Mangal Thana. In both these riots there was one sided attack on Muslims by the police.

In Sarada (Udaipur) tribals were provoked by BJP leaders to attack Muslims after the murder of a tribal by a Muslim goon which was due purely to a personal feud and 70 houses of Muslims were burnt right in front of the District Magistrate and S.P. police, both high government officials. In Mangal Thana too the whole village inhabited by Muslims was burnt and Muslims had to run away with only the clothes on their bodies.

When I met Mr.Gehlot, Chief Minister of Rajasthan in one of the meetings at Prime Ministers House after these riots I told him to suspend both these high officials with immediate effect so that a message goes to other officers, so that such incidents are not repeated. However, Gehlot did not take action and another riot erupted on 14th September 2011 in Gopalgarh, where mainly Meo Muslims reside.

Gopalgarh riot was less of riot and more of a police action as of the 10 people killed most of them were killed in police firing inside the mosque. Before we deal with this further I would like to ask the BJP leaders and Mr. Sharad Yadav, a BJP ally and part of NDA, are there not already two laws – one for the minorities and one for majority.  In fact what was the need for bringing this Bill? The way the BJP Government led by Narendra Modi let a genocide of Muslims take place in 2002 and police and administration was party to the massacre of Muslims. Is this not in itself a dual law? Who divided and polarized the society? Communal forces or this Bill? They divide society and have two laws, one for the majority and one for minority and then blame a new law which is sought to be introduced. It was so unfortunate that due to such an aggressive attack by the Hindutva forces the Government may have to revise the Bill. One more problem with the Bill was the fear most of the chief ministers had about the future of the federal structure of the Indian Union. They feared that Central interference may increasingly affect the federal structure. Though the Bill does not propose to use Article 355 (advising the state government in case of threat to internal security) the chief ministers feared this may be the case.

The Bill was mostly supported by the Muslim members (except Zoya Hasan who had reservations about the Bill in the present form) but Lalu Prasad Yadav lent his support and criticized the communal forces unsparingly. It was surprising this time, that Swami Agnivesh’s support was for the BJP voice and he congratulated Mrs. Sushama Swaraj and Arun Jaitly for their ‘honest’ criticism of the Bill without exploiting it for election purposes. How honest it was everyone knows. It is very surprising to see Swami Agnivesh who has in the past been a strong voice of secularism, agree with the BJP.

One thought, that after Gujarat, the police may not so blatantly side with the rioters or become part of the rioting mob. But Rajasthan has once again shown that the police is highly communalized, especially if the chief minister happens to be weak and dithering in taking strong action. Let us not forget that Rajasthan was ruled by the BJP for full two terms before the Congress came to power in the last elections in 2008

The BJP has thoroughly communalized the bureaucracy and police and this we see now in every district of Rajasthan. The BJP had openly said during those days that Rajasthan will be another Gujarat and indeed due to a weak chief minister it is becoming so. Mr. Gehlot first said that it was not communal riot but only a land dispute between two groups (i.e. between Meo Muslims and Gujjars) but then when he was sternly warned by Ms. Gandhi he took action and suspended district officials.

If Mr.Gehlot had shown courage and took strong action after the Saroda incidents and suspended DM and SP in 2010 neither Mangalthana would have taken place nor Gopalgarh. It was only after a lot of pressure from NGOs and from the Congress party itself that CM took some action against the guilty officers. It was prompt action against guilty officers by the Left Front Government in West Bengal and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar that these two extremely communally sensitive states became almost riot-free. It is interesting to note that Meo Muslims in Bharatpur are early converts to Islam from Rajputs and they never gave up their ancestral cultural practices and even Tablighi movement which was launched in early twentieth century failed to Islamize them and they continue to remain half Hindu culturally and ritually. The BJP always maintains that if Muslims become part of ‘mainstream’ they would be acceptable and here Meo Muslims are more than part of the mainstream and yet they are targeted in riots.

The theory of mainstreaming Muslims is patently false as all Muslims from Kashmir to Kanaya Kumari are Indian both culturally and in terms of social ethos and especially so in rural areas and still the BJP has been ideologically targeting them in every riot and labelling them ‘foreigners’ and worst still Pakistanis. Today BJP is issueless party and is finding it difficult to come to power so it is once again resorting to provoking violence at every available opportunity against minorities.

It would be in the interest of secular forces to support the communal violence Bill if communal violence is to be contained. In India a part of the administrative and police staff comes from the RSS stream (what BJP calls mainstream is, in fact, RSS stream) and is highly prejudiced against minorities and hence it is only the threat of legal punishment which would deter them from aggravating communal violence by supporting it.

Unless police is held responsible along with district administration it would be impossible to stop communal violence, may be one can change the nomenclature from minorities and majority to two groups but then to use group instead of minority and majority takes the sting away. Majority and minority have been used historically as part of communal terminology. If the ruling party at the Centre shows political courage and retains the original terminology it will be much better. But I am sure this will not be the case and it may choose to change the words majority-minority with groups and water down the bill. After all, as discussion in the NIC shows, ruling party will have to face tough opposition and media also may not be very sympathetic on this Bill. So far it has shown hardly any interest in the Bill and much has not been written on the subject.

Many chief ministers did not show up at the NIC meeting as they would have to take a stand one way or the other, which they did not want to take. Ms. Mayawati also did not come as supporting the Bill was not in her interest as a regional satrap and opposing it would alienate Muslim voters so she cleverly kept away and so did Jayalalitha and Mamta Banerjee for a similar dilemma.

I think though after Gujarat no communal riot has taken place on that scale but to write off communalism will be a serious mistake. It continues and shall continue to be a major political challenge to Indian secularism and effective legal and political action must be taken to face this challenge and it also needs to be said that a country of India’s diversity cannot survive without secularism. (Secular Perspective)