Misreading The Riot Act

The many pitfalls of the new communal violence Bill
REVATI LAUL ., Tehelka

No lessons learnt The Muzaffarnagar riots could have been controlled if the politicians had not interfered, says GK Pillai.

No lessons learnt The Muzaffarnagar riots could have been controlled if the politicians had not interfered, says GK Pillai. Photo: AFP

We are a nation born from communal violence. So, it stands to reason that we should have a set of rules that can be the noose around an administration’s neck if it fails to stop a communal riot from spreading. As we go into a highly polarised General Election next year, the word ‘riot’ is writ large on the political stage, and both the main contenders — the Congress and the BJP — are trying to milk it for all its worth.

For the Congress, the dusting down of the long-pending draft of the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011, is one more attempt to claim a secular space and minority votes for itself. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde has said this Bill will be tabled in the coming winter session of Parliament.

For the BJP, it has now become yet another opportunity to call the drafters of the Bill “the hollow men, heads full of straw”. And with good reason. Even as the draft is being chopped and changed, what’s on the table right now looks like it may actually add to the divisiveness in a riot instead of being the recipe for extinguishing it.

The first and most basic unreasonable thread running through the document is its stated objective: “To prevent and control targeted violence, including mass violence, against Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and religious minorities.” The Bill presumes that in any communal riot, it is the minority group that must be protected first. In so doing, the draft sets up its most basic problem. Dividing Indians in every state into majority and minority. That’s how the Bill plays right into the hands of the BJP; giving the party new fodder for its old allegation that the Congress-led UPA government continually plays minority politics to win elections.

Human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, who was once part of the UPA government’s National Advisory Council (NAC) that helped draft the Bill, explains this travesty. “The NAC has played right into the hands of the BJP by making the word ‘group’ the centre-piece of the law,” she says. By ‘group,’ the feisty lawyer meant the constant refrain in the draft Bill of a religious or linguistic minority in whose defence this Bill seems to have been drafted. Grover argues that what the Bill has failed to focus on instead is accountability, regardless of whether the perpetrators of a riot are from the majority or a minority community. It was on this account that she and three other members walked out of the NAC in 2011.

Former home secretary GK Pillai, who was privy to some of the early conversations around the drafting of the Bill, explains how it was originally meant to strengthen the hands of the bureaucrat and the policeman who may want to arrest rioters, but are often given orders from their political bosses not to do so. The Bill was meant to act as a noose around the neck of the district administration and also every level of the government, right up to the prime minister, listing who must be thrown into jail under criminal charges if a riot is not controlled.

Most bureaucrats agree that controlling a riot is not rocket science. It requires some basic steps to be taken, and most of all, the use of reason and judgement. A Muzaffarnagar-like situation, which unfolded into an ugly riot this September, or the 2002 Gujarat riots, says Pillai, can be controlled if politicians did not interfere and tie the hands of those in charge.

“I was once Collector of a district and there was rioting in the fishermen community,” recalls Pillai, digging into useful personal history. “I imposed a curfew and issued shoot-at-sight orders. And then the chief minister called the superintendent of police, saying the orders were complete nonsense and the curfew should be withdrawn. Luckily, the SP was a friend of mine and five years my junior. I said to him, ‘Tell the chief minister that I have given the orders in writing.’ The next day, the chief minister gave a speech taking credit for imposing the curfew because it brought peace. I said, ‘Let him take the credit, as long as no one gets killed and peace is restored.’ If I had done as he had ordered, maybe we would have all gone to jail.”

Pillai was lucky as we know many bureaucrats and policemen have not been. Some are now in jail, taking the hit for having failed to prevent a riot while their political masters got away.

The new Bill is meant to change that. But, by focussing on protecting minorities instead of fixing accountability at various levels, it fails miserably in its task. According to Grover, the draft being written and shown around to a select few not only limits the responsibility of a riot to the district magistrate and the SP; it also seeks to give them draconian powers or “absolute control” in a riot over everyone and every activity. The same government that had struck down versions of the Lokpal Bill for fear that the people would be handing over their rights to a Nazi-like State is now talking of a Bill that will give it even more draconian powers.

It’s for these two reasons that the drafts of the Bill in circulation have been panned by political parties both on the Left and the Right. Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley has predicted that this Bill has the potential to “damage the federal polity of India”. And at the opposite end of the political spectrum, the CPM’s Brinda Karat has said much the same, voicing her concerns over the stated objective of protecting “groups” of minorities and also of giving the Centre too much power.

The complaints of damage to the federal structure come from one crucial part of the Bill. This seeks to set up a Lokpal-style institution called the National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation with corresponding commissions in every state. The Central authority will have the power to step in if it thinks the state government is not doing its job during a riot. And it will also have the attendant judicial powers to examine riot cases.

While it can be argued that such a commission is needed, especially since most riots are seen to be stage-managed by one political dispensation or another, the counter-argument is as follows: which national-level commission has been supremely successful in countering the will of its political masters? The National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Women or the National Commission for Minorities? Is there something missing in the DNA of these national bodies that needs to be addressed first before another such giant is constructed?

Finally, there is the business of charting out a uniform mathematics about the compensation due to riot victims, which have so far been entirely arbitrary. The Bill seeks to chart out a universal algorithm for how people who are displaced get compensated.

“It should prevent a situation from arising in the future where Kashmiri Pandits or Bodos from Assam or Christians from Kandhamal in Odisha or the Brus of Mizoram live in relief camps for decades together,” says Wajahat Habibullah, the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities. Crucial to efforts at rehabilitation will be the psychological repairing that this Bill does speak of.

While these measures have some thought to recommend them, the overall architecture of the Bill leaves open the possibility of many scary scenarios unfolding, if this were to become law. If a politician wants to fix the blame for a riot on the district administration, this Bill could indeed provide the perfect medium, since as it stands, the buck stops with those in charge of the district. Further, if the Centre and the state government are from opposing parties, this law arms the Centre with much more teeth to “fix” an opposition party in charge of a state, if it so desires. By now, the history of riots in this country makes it amply clear that these scenarios have played themselves out cruelly and repeatedly over time.

A senior government official, who did not want to be named, told TEHELKA one such macabre tale. In 2010, Naga groups in Manipur had carried out an economic blockade, preventing supplies from going into the state. The government had sufficient forces at hand to be able to move in essential supplies every day. But this officer claims that the chief minister wanted the convoys to move only once a week. He wanted the price of LPG to go up to Rs 1,800 a cylinder and the price of petrol to Rs 1,000 a litre so that the majority community would feel threatened and it would yield him political dividend. In the end, the diabolical politics paid off.

So far, critics of the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011, have been thoroughly convincing in their claims that it will not change the prevailing scenario. If anything, in selectively pursuing its mandate for one set of people, the Bill has the potential to drive even deeper wedges in an already deeply divded society. Critics such as Grover go one step further, throwing their hands up in the air when they say, “This government may be throwing away its last chance to bring in an effective legislation to curb communal violence.”

In its current form, the Bill is likely to get absolutely no support when it is tabled in Parliament. Like many other Bills that are badly needed but thoroughly compromised, this too may go the way of all flesh.