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Combating Religion Related Violence in India
A new bill includes the possibility of gross misuse to further persecute Muslims and Christians, who, according to the BJP, are the trouble-makers

ICC Note:
This article helps explain some of the complex issues regarding Hindu radicals’ attempts to take over the government and marginalize Christians and other religious minorities.

by Vishal Arora
SperoNews (11/10/06) – Addressing the annual conference of the State Minorities Commissions on November 2, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated his government’s promise to enact a law against communalism or religion-related violence. A comprehensive law to tackle such violence is overdue as the atmosphere of the country vis-à-vis religious fundamentalism has not changed much despite the change of the federal government in 2004.

According to the 2005-2006 annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs or internal ministry, in 2003, during the regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the number of communal incidents was 711. This increased to 779 in 2005 under the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Legislation to combat fundamentalism is a brilliant idea but certain provisions of the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, which was tabled in Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the parliament) in December 2005 and later referred to a group of ministers, are short-sighted and presumptuous, and may not be able to tackle fundamentalism at the ground-level.

For instance, Section 55 of the draft bill empowers the federal government to declare within a state or province a “communally disturbed area” thereby bringing the law and order situation of that area under its purview. (According to the Indian Constitution, law and order is the responsibility of respective state governments.) It also empowers the federal government to send forces to those areas. This provision fails to see beyond the present political configuration, in which the “secular” coalition is ruling the federal government with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in charge of the states where incidence of anti-minority bashing is allegedly high – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Not long ago, when members of the Muslim minority community were brutally killed in Gujarat during the religious riots in 2002, the BJP was ruling both the federal and state governments. The then ruling NDA did not use the existing emergency provision in Article 356 of the Constitution, despite it being a clearly visible case of failure of the constitutional machinery in the state. Therefore, if the bill is passed with its existing provisions and if and when the NDA comes back to power at the national level, there is a possibility of gross misuse of such a provision to further persecute Muslims and Christians, who, according to the BJP, are the trouble-makers.

Similarly, the bill empowers district magistrates – who report to their respective state governments – to take measures to prevent religious tensions. This may never happen in the states where the ruling governments want to divide voters along religious lines.

In fact, district magistrates already have the power under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to deal with urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger, whereby they can prevent any assembly or programme that is likely to create communal tensions. In addition, there are Sections in the Indian Penal Code for the police to promptly and strictly deal with those who perpetrate violence in the name of religion. For instance, Section 153(A) is for disturbing communal harmony, 295 for injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class, 295(A) for outraging religious beliefs, 296 for disturbing religious assembly, 297 for trespassing of a burial place, and 298 for wounding religious feelings. But more often than not, these powers are not used by magistrates or police for obvious reasons. It is public knowledge that during the post-Godhra riots, the Gujarat government allegedly managed to gain the acquiescence of the police department and district magistrates to allow the killing of Muslims by religious extremists.

Moreover, the UPA is understood to be making an attempt to evolve an all-party consensus on the provisions of the bill – which being impossible is unnecessarily delaying the process. If all the parties were truly for controlling communalism we would not need a codified law. The UPA needs to acknowledge that almost no party has a clean record in objectively combating fundamentalism. While the BJP is known for targeting Muslims and Christians, the Congress tarnished its image in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

Commissions and independent inquiries into numerous incidents of communal riots – the Ahmedabad riots of 1969; the Bhiwandi, Jalgaon, and Mahad riots of 1970; the Tellicherry riots of 1971; the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 and so on – have revealed that communal elements invariably enjoyed tacit support of the state machinery to succeed in their macabre agenda. A few years ago, six retired top cops from different states submitted a paper to the prime minister entitled, “Communal riots must be accepted as a failure of governance”, saying that any communal tension can be contained within a few hours of the concerned government wills so.

The UPA should introduce in the bill provisions to empower the judiciary to hold governments accountable whenever they fail to protect the people of a community and prevent communal tensions.