There has probably never been a time when an anti-discrimination legislation was more needed in India as the present.
From atrocities on Dalits, the deliberate exclusion of the marginalised, State-sanctioned killings of those deemed criminals or extra-judicial murders, most people face some sort of discrimination on a daily basis.
The Anti-Discrimination and Equality Bill 2016, moved by MP Shashi Tharoor, seeks to correct these anomalies by creating a comprehensive framework to address various injustices.
One huge area of discrimination is that which criminalises sex “against the order of nature”, a provision which has been used to harass the LGBTQ community through exclusion and often physical violence. The discrimination against Dalits came to the fore with the suicide of Rohith Vemula, which became something of a cause célèbre but did not actually result in any enabling law. The systematic discrimination against minorities like Muslims with regard to their eating habits and denying them accommodation is now well-documented.
Emboldened by the rise of the Right-wing forces, vigilante squads have been attacking the very fundamental rights that people are entitled to, from freedom of expression to movement to dress and food.
The Constitution expressly protects students, tenants, senior citizens and employees from discrimination in matters of housing, education, work opportunities and medical facilities, but in the absence of strong legislation, many of these rights have fallen by the wayside.
The bill as it stands seeks to encompass the many spheres in which biases and discrimination prevail from the prejudice against North-Eastern people to intimidating young couples on the grounds of some spurious culture and tradition.
In an atmosphere of intolerance and bigotry the law can only do so much, but it is very important that such legislation is available for victims who then at least have institutionalised redress. The fact there is no strong legislation is what has spurred on elements like the Karni Sena to openly vandalise the sets of a movie on the grounds that it portrays a fictitious Rajput queen based on a real life one in a bad light. We have seen how vigilantes thought nothing of entering a Muslim man’s home on the suspicion that he had beef in his fridge and beat him to death. Far from condemning the incident in no uncertain terms, certain Right-wing political formations sought to eulogise the killers.
Today, the self-styled custodians of culture take great offence at young people expressing themselves through song by seeking to impose religious and cultural restrictions in an arbitrary manner.
A bill that prevents discrimination may not be the panacea for all our ills on this front, but it certainly would be a very good beginning.