Riots seem to bring out puzzling characteristics in officials, politicians, the perpetrators and eyewitnesses. None of them ever seem to remember having seen or heard anything despite enormous losses of life and property. This has led to a situation where victims wander in a twilight zone of denials and half-truths for years. The revised Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill 2010 seeks to ensure accountability and punishment in the event of a riot. The most important feature of the new bill is the onus put on the interventionist role for the Central government as well as enabling it to set up a unified command.
It does not spare officials either for sins of omission or commission and has recommended stiff penalties for those found guilty. The victims who have usually been helpless bystanders have come under the purview of the bill in that they will now have the right to access information about legal proceedings and documents and can be heard at all stages of the investigation and trial. The Cabinet is yet to make at least 80 amendments to the bill before it is introduced, most probably in the monsoon session. Public servants and the police will find it hard to take cover under the excuse that they were waiting for orders from above or to suffer from selective amnesia. The bill clearly holds them responsible for inaction, or worse still, collusion. We have seen that in the riots in Gujarat, Bhiwandi, Moradabad, even the 1984 Sikh riots to name a few, cases fell by the wayside because officialdom and the police either did nothing or were complicit in the crimes. The victims of many of these carnages have had to wait decades for justice and many are still in limbo.
There is bound to be friction between the Centre and state over the enhanced powers of the former in riot control. And there is no doubt that this issue will be politicised. But, at least it goes some way to enable people to know where the buck stops. The bill was first introduced in 2005 and then withdrawn. It was passed by the Cabinet in 2009 but found to be inadequate. The fact that so much thinking and fine-tuning has gone into it suggests that the government is at last serious about tackling this barbaric trend. Of course, there are several things that need to be streamlined to speed up the investigative process and the registration of cases. The bill alone will not be able to prevent riots. But once it becomes clear that the culprits cannot get off so easily, hopefully their incidence will become much less.