It does not really come as a surprise that the government should develop cold feet over the provisions of a bill that plans to make the destruction of public property a non-bailable offence. The fact that leaders of political parties are to be included in this seems to be the sticking point when it comes to the proposed Prevention of Destruction of Public Property Amendment Bill.
The grounds are that this will be misused by different political parties to frame rivals. If it stands in its present form, leaders of parties which preside over vandalism could not only face imprisonment but also pay a fine. The bill is slated to be introduced next month.
We have seen the kind of mayhem visited on public property during hartals, demonstrations and bandhs. Property worth millions of rupees is destroyed and the public is put to enormous hardship. In Tamil Nadu at last count, according the National Crime Records Bureau, 1,671 properties were destroyed, in Uttar Pradesh it was 1,131, followed by Haryana with 529.
In 2007, the Supreme Court had begun proceedings for which it appointed two panels to come up with suggestions on how to handle the leaders who are behind large scale demonstrations with a view of making them accountable. We have seen right from the fateful riots of 1984 that the leaders tend to stay out the limelight and leave the party workers to wreak mayhem for which the latter get caught and punished. The political parties obviously don’t want things to change. They want concrete and direct proof of involvement of the leader which, as we have seen, is extremely difficult to obtain.
In the bill, the only way the leader of a political party can get relief is if it can be proved that the offence was committed without his knowledge and that he had tried to prevent this. The bill will be meaningless if it is watered down. Those organising violent demonstrations are equally culpable as those carrying out orders.
The bill would give the criminal justice system the teeth to protect hapless people whose lives are put in danger during these demonstrations and who get no recompense for property destroyed. In the last Meena-Gujjar agitation, not only was public property destroyed, but roads were blocked preventing people from getting to their places of work. Since no one person could be blamed for this, the perpetrators got off scot-free. As political parties are behind this, the police too are hesitant to act.
The bill in its present form should go through and all attempts to dilute it resisted.