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Courage under fire

Sadbhavna is a great idea, but it has no meaning without justice for all. If after decades of communal violence what our nation sees is a televised ‘sadbhavna fast’ by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi instead of a law to challenge impunity, we stand to weaken our moral core. Farah Naqvi writes.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2011 21:51 IST
Farah Naqvi

Sadbhavna is a great idea, but it has no meaning without justice for all. If after decades of communal violence what our nation sees is a televised ‘sadbhavna fast’ by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi instead of a law to challenge impunity, we stand to weaken our moral core.

It’s inevitable that justice for the weak will be a political hard sell. And laws around the world seeking to secure justice and equality for the weak have been forged through fires of hot contestation. The first Civil Rights Act of 1957 in the US was greeted by howls of protest from White chauvinists.

Even ‘liberal’ John F Kennedy chose political realism over principle and voted against it in Congress for he knew it had little popular support at the time. JFK became a ‘civil rights champion’ later; some say only when he sensed greater need for the Black vote.

Closer home, the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, was preceded by a robust Dalit rights movement, and high profile cases of Dalit atrocities set the stage for its passage.

But the backlash soon followed and attempts continue till today to stymie its implementation. The Draft Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill, 2011, (PCTV) faces similar challenges.

These laws are different from the spate of legislative and policy measures in recent years ensuring basic entitlements. Take the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Right to Education (RTE) — one promised employment to the rural poor, the other elementary education.

These are unexceptionable wares to peddle in the political marketplace of populist ideas, lending themselves easily to sound byte debates in TV studios, apparently the new testing ground for ‘popular will’.

The arguments that NREGA and RTE faced weren’t social or political, but economic (with neo-liberals asking: ‘Will there be too much burden on the exchequer?’ Or ‘Why do the poor deserve such generous hand-outs?’).

But special protection legislations, within a civil rights framework, seeking to install systems of justice for the weak are different. They demand that we as a nation acknowledge inequality and discrimination as a fact of our society, polity and criminal justice system. They demand the naming of particular classes of citizens as weak and others as strong.

They demand from our political class a will to embrace principles of equal, secular citizenship over the politics of populism.

The PCTV bill is anti-secular, it should be burnt, it should be put in a trashcan — these are are some of the unnecessarily strident remarks we’ve heard in recent TV debates.

Curiously, the government’s discredited Communal Violence Bill of 2005 didn’t elicit such shrill abandonment of civilised discourse because the 2005 bill didn’t challenge the biased use of State power that allows communal violence to spread.

In fact, it augmented and further concentrated powers in the hands of the State (Modi would have embraced such a bill).

The 2011 PCTV Bill, by comparison, attracts vicious protest partly because it does threaten the communal violence machinery, by making the State accountable for discriminatory use of its powers.

Evidence of this does not need to be excavated from the recesses of distant history — because State bias in cases of identity-based attacks is not a thing of the past, as critics claim. Look at the fate of Dalits and Muslims in recent weeks and months — in Madurai (September 2011), Moradabad (August 2011) or Bharatpur (September 2011); look at Tamils in Karnataka (March 2008) or Biharis in Mumbai (October 2008). They are why we need this bill.

There may be much in the draft PCTV Bill, 2011 that its critics can improve, but its core (robust State accountability) represents the hope of securing equal protection of laws for all citizens; of giving meaning to the idea of sadbhavna.

Political momentum follows from acts of political courage and for true sadbhavna we need that courage from our political class.

(Farah Naqvi is a member of the National Advisory Council. The views expressed by the author are personal)