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Goodness gets silly

columns Updated: Jun 11, 2011 21:42 IST

Just because you have the right intentions doesn't mean you'll end up with the right result. Sometimes you can overdo things and create a mess. That, I'm afraid, seems to be the case with the National Advisory Council's (NAC) draft bill to tackle communal violence.

That we need a bill to tackle this menace is hard to deny after the Sikh killings of 1984, Bhagalpur, Gujarat and Kandhamal. The response that the laws we already have are sufficient is debatable. They're clearly not used effectively. A new act, with sharper focus and more defined responsibilities, would undoubtedly help.

The problem lies with the details of the NAC's bill. It starts with the presumption that communal violence is perpetrated by the majority community and the victims are members of religious or linguistic minorities. While that may be true of the horrific murders of 1984 and 2002, it's certainly not the full truth. The violence independent India witnessed in Meerut or Moradabad, Bengal, Assam and Kerala was also communal. No doubt the NAC's desire to protect minorities is laudable. But a law must be even-handed and non-discriminatory.

Unfortunately, the problems go further. Some of the offences the bill outlines are ludicrous. Clause 7(b)(iii) defines "exposing one's sexual organs in front of any person" as a sexual assault. This means flashing, streaking and, presumably, even peeing in public become an assault! Clause 7(b)(vi) takes this to an absurd extent. It says "any other act or conduct that subjects a person to sexual indignity" is a sexual assault. This is so wide and vague it could cover anything. Worse, these are non-bailable offences and the punishment is rigorous imprisonment for not less than seven years!

A particularly revealing example of how right intentions can sometimes lead to foolish outcomes is the bill's treatment of hate propaganda offences. That such offences need to be recognised is indisputable. But when you discover that the bill's broad and imprecise terms could mean Sandeep Dikshit's comment that St Stephen's is a "communal institution" may be treated as a crime you'll get my point.

Clause 3(f) (v) states that a hostile environment is created by "any act, whether or not it amounts to an offence under this act, that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment". Under this bill Dikshit could serve three years! Sadly, there's more. The national authority to supervise the implementation of the bill is bizarrely structured. First, its appointing body is dominated by the Opposition and not the government. Second, of its seven members four, including the chairperson and the vice-chairperson, have to be from the minorities. Third, four also have to be women.

If this seems communal or sexist there are further examples to corroborate your concern. The bill requires state governments to appoint a panel of special public prosecutors. One-third have to be from linguistic or religious minorities and "at least another one-third" have to be women.

A clause I find particularly repugnant is No. 82. It says "where a charge has been framed in relation to an offence under this act", a judge may attach the property of the accused "during the pendency of the trial" ie while he's still innocent! If this bill was law that would be a further horror in store for flashers, streakers and Sandeep Dikshit.

All of which reminds me of the old epithet: there's none so prone to do evil as those who aim to do good.

The views expressed by the author are personal.