Politicos may land in jail if protests by supporters turn violent
Leaders of political parties may have to think twice before they call a street protest, strike or bandh. They may end up in jail if the protest turns violent, causing damage to public property.
The home ministry on Wednesday put out the first draft of proposed amendments to the Prevention of Destruction of Public Property Act to seek public views. The amendment not only requires rioters to pay up the market price of the property damaged but also borrows from the now-repealed anti-terror law POTA to make it easier to send them to jail, and convict them.
According to the draft, the prosecution will only have to prove the accused was part of the mob that damaged public property. The burden of proof will then shift on the accused, who will have to prove that he did not, for instance, burn down a public bus. It also restricts the court's powers to release the accused on bail unless "there are reasonable grounds to believe that he (the accused) is not guilty".
But the proposal that could provoke the loudest protests is the one which says office-bearers of the organisation calling the agitation would be "deemed" guilty if their supporters run amok.
This implies that the entire leadership of an organisation - a students' union, political party or labour union - could be jailed if violence breaks out during the protest and public property is damaged. Each of them will then have to prove that the offence was committed without their knowledge or they took all precautions to prevent it.
"These are draconian provisions ... We are still a democracy and citizens as well as political parties alike have the right to agitate," said CPI leader D Raja, adding the home ministry needed to get its priorities right.
Damage to public property is punishable with a five-year jail term and fine. In case the property damaged is related to production or distribution of water or power, sewage pipeline or an oil installation, the jail term goes up to 10 years. In addition, the amendments propose to make the convicts pay the market value of the property damaged.
Kumar Alok, joint secretary in the home ministry, said the proposals, in line with the recommendations of a Supreme Court-constituted panel headed by Justice K T Thomas, were aimed at deterring people from vandalising public property during agitations.
The Centre does not track the damage to public property by mobs.
Statistics of agitations compiled by the Bureau of Police Research and Development, however, indicate that only a small proportion of agitations turn violent.
There were 75,991 protests in 2013 across the country, an average of 208 daily. Agitations by political parties accounted for 32% of those, labour unions (11%), students (11%) and government employees (16%).
Police had to use force in 418 incidents and open fire in another 92. In all, 14 civilians and 10 police personnel died in these agitations. Also, 427 civilians were injured due to police action while 1,249 security personnel suffered injuries.