This winter session will be its last chance to redeem its pledge to its people for defending India’s secular democratic fabric.
This same winter, 20,000 people will be forced to subsist in makeshift camps in Muzaffarnagar: refugees from hate, exiled from their homelands for the crime of their religious identity. Electoral politics divide people and social fractures harden through hate, fear, violent intimidation and organised boycott.
Muslim residents emptied out of more than a hundred villages in the aftermath of September’s violent attacks spurred by angry claims — later proved false — that a Muslim boy was stalking a Jat girl. But when people tried to return to their villages, they faced blockades to employment in the Jat landlords’ fields, and some were attacked and killed.
Apart from farm labour, the main livelihood of impoverished Muslims of the region is ‘pheri’ — selling clothes from house to house — but as they try to recommence this, again they hit both boycott and threats. Their despair is compounded because hardly any arrests have been made despite more than 400 police complaints of murder, armed robbery and arson. Women speak in hushed voices about gang rapes. The few times the police enter a village for arrests, women block their paths and the police return empty-handed.
In many riots I have seen in the past, the surge of hate violence was almost always followed shortly after by elders and women of both communities reaching out to each other, by which some social healing and reconciliation would set in. Gujarat, Assam and now Muzaffarnagar represent a new dangerous phase in communal relations in India, in which hatred is actively fostered not just in the heat of the actual violence but equally in its aftermath.
Survivors are actively blocked from rebuilding their livelihoods through systematically organised social and economic boycott, and are discouraged from returning to their homes.
Through such social hate strategies, in Gujarat today many villages have been ‘cleansed’ of their erstwhile Muslim populations. Muslim ghettoes like Juhapara have grown from one and a half to four lakh, swollen with refugees from violence. People in Gujarat speak of ‘borders’ between Hindu and Muslim settlements, each almost fully segregated from the other. This threatens to be the new reality in Lower Assam, and now Muzaffarnagar.
There were no riots in the Muzaffarnagar countryside during Partition or the Babri demolition, but today it is being divided on communal lines, perhaps permanently. If communal organisations succeed in preventing mixed settlements of Hindus and Muslims, new generations will grow up knowing little about each other, with no bonds of understanding and friendship. This will be the beginning of the end of the idea of pluralist and tolerant India.
To effectively prevent identity-based targeted hate violence in India, the central pillar of the communal violence Bill must be passed to make state administrations legally accountable to prevent communal violence, and to control it effectively and in the shortest possible time.
Current laws fully empower governments to prevent and control hate violence: prosecuting those indulging in hate propaganda, the use of force and calling in the army. If state administrations wish to control even the largest outbreak of communal violence, they can do so in a matter of hours, not even days.
The problem is their deliberate failures to use the law to prevent such violence, and the permanent scars that such bloodshed leaves on communities that otherwise live together peacefully. The law must, therefore, create a new crime — ‘dereliction of duty by public officials’, which makes it a crime if they act — or deliberately do not act — in ways which allows or fosters communal violence.
‘Command responsibility’ makes not just the officer on the spot but the level from which commands emerged to not control hate violence criminally liable. If such a law was in place we would not have witnessed the criminal abdication of duty by officers to prevent communal carnages such as in 1984 in Delhi, 1992-93 in Bombay, 2002 in Gujarat and 2013 in Muzaffarnagar.
Other critical pillars of the proposed law are protecting victims’ rights to justice, and mandatory standards of relief and rehabilitation in the aftermath of communal violence. The importance of these is highlighted when we observe even an administration such as that currently in power in Uttar Pradesh which claims to be secular, failing to establish and run relief camps, provide effective support to rebuild destroyed livelihoods and homes, or to facilitate legal justice to the survivors.
The version of the Bill prepared by the National Advisory Council, with which I was closely associated, contains all these essential features. It has been attacked on two main grounds. The first is that it is the claim that it offers protection only to minorities, and second, that it compromises with the federal structure by creating a national authority with powers over states.
I contest both these claims, but these are not essential to the architecture of the law and can be given up to build consensus. The law can be made to apply to all, both minority and majority, and instead of a national authority, powers of oversight and advice to states can be given to the National Human Rights Commission, which already defends human rights without invading state autonomy.
There is just a small window before the general elections, in which everyone from the right to the Left of the political spectrum needs to come together, to rapidly build consensus on a law that makes state administrations legally accountable to prevent and control communal violence, and ensure survivors’ rights to reparation and justice.
India cannot afford the recurrence of the hate, suffering and social fractures of Muzaffarnagar yet again.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal