Bat­tling Years of Vi­o­lence

Com­mu­nal vi­o­lence con­tin­ues to pen­e­trate In­dian so­ci­ety

Southasia - - Contents - By David Grif­fiths

As In­dia un­der­went the sec­ond Univer­sal Pe­ri­odic Re­view (UPR) of its hu­man rights record by UN mem­ber states in May, it was no great sur­prise to see a num­ber of states us­ing their 90-sec­ond speak­ing slots to raise the is­sue of com­mu­nal (sec­tar­ian) vi­o­lence. Al­though com­mu­nal vi­o­lence has been a tragic fea­ture of the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal land­scape in In­dia for longer than any­one cares to re­mem­ber, sev­eral fac­tors con­verged to raise its pro­file dur­ing the four-year pe­riod lead­ing up to the sec­ond UPR. Among them was the world­wide at­ten­tion paid to com­mu­nal vi­o­lence in Orissa in 2008, the visit and sub­se­quent re­port by the UN Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on free­dom of re­li­gion or be­lief in the same year, and the in­ten­si­fied pol­icy fo­cus on pro­mot­ing free­dom of re­li­gion or be­lief in a num­ber of North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean coun­tries.

But there has also been spe­cific in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in the pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts of the In­dian gov­ern­ment to cre­ate a leg­isla­tive frame­work which ef­fec­tively tack­les the con­tin­gen­cies of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence. Al­though sadly there are abun­dant ex­am­ples of reli­gious ma­jor­ity groups per­pe­trat­ing com­mu­nal vi­o­lence in In­dia’s re­gional neigh­bor­hood, this is the only coun­try to date which has ex­per­i­mented with cre­at­ing a com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy

frame­work to deal with it. Ac­cord­ingly, a “com­mu­nal vi­o­lence bill” has been mooted as part of a se­ries of am­bi­tious wel­fare mea­sures. The bill has gone through the highs and lows of in­tro­duc­tion in and with­drawal from the Ra­jya Sabha, out­right re­jec­tion by civil so­ci­ety, be­ing re­drafted with their in­put, blasted vo­cif­er­ously by the op­po­si­tion’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), re­sisted by state gov­ern­ments and, even­tu­ally aban­doned by the gov­ern­ment. The ex­per­i­ment is now at the brink of col­lapse. Yet the in­ter­na­tional community, par­tic­u­larly Ger­many, was im­pressed by the in­ten­tions of the bill and en­cour­aged In­dia to see the process through. The cen­tral ques­tion now arises: is there re­al­is­ti­cally any­thing left to sal­vage from the wreck­age?

In­dia’s state­ment at the UPR was char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally de­fen­sive on com­mu­nal vi­o­lence, dis­miss­ing it as “spo­radic” and em­pha­siz­ing a de­creas­ing tra­jec­tory across the coun­try. Of­fi­cial (and very con­ser­va­tive) sta­tis­tics col­lated by PRS Leg­isla­tive Re­search, an in­de­pen­dent re­search body in New Delhi, showed that 648 peo­ple were killed and 11,278 peo­ple were injured in 4,030 in­ci­dents of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence from 2005-2009, which many would ar­gue is still far from neg­li­gi­ble. How­ever, the real hu­man rights con­cern is not whether the rate of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence is ris­ing or fall­ing, but whether its vic­tims, past and present, are con­sis­tently able to ac­cess jus­tice.

In­deed, the state is un­able even to mea­sure the rate of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence un­less it is con­fi­dent that po­lice con­sis­tently reg­is­ters cases prop­erly and there is abun­dant anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that they do not. Cred­i­ble NGO fig­ures sug­gest that in some places, the num­ber of deaths and in­juries from com­mu­nal vi­o­lence could eas­ily be dou­ble of those recorded by the state.

Com­mu­nal vi­o­lence re­mains too per­sis­tent and its na­ture is too com­plex for any­one to hope that it will sim­ply melt away. A pol­icy re­sponse that ef­fec­tively tack­les each of its var­i­ous di­men­sions, is des­per­ately needed.

Com­mu­nal vi­o­lence is not an in­evitable con­se­quence of dif­fer­ent reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in par­al­lel but as scholar, Gya­nen­dra Pandey has co­gently ar­gued, it is a con­se­quence of “the con­struc­tion and nat­u­ral­iza­tion of par­tic­u­lar cat­e­gories of thought” about the place of dif­fer­ent reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties in his­tory and in pol­i­tics. Reli­gious community blocs are con­strued as be­ing en­gaged in a zero-sum strug­gle for po­lit­i­cal, so­cial or eco­nomic influence.

Crit­i­cally, how­ever, com­mu­nal vi­o­lence also in­volves the story of a re­la­tion­ship be­tween its vic­tims and the state. Hu­man rights de­fend­ers spe­cial­iz­ing in this is­sue say that the fail­ure of the state is a re­cur­rent fea­ture of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence, leav­ing vic­tims in a hugely dis­ad­van­taged po­si­tion. In­deed, many say that com­mu­nal vi­o­lence can­not take place with­out state in­dif­fer­ence or com­plic­ity. Episodes of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence through the years have re­peat­edly in­cluded the ab­sence of pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures dur­ing the build-up, the in­dif­fer­ence or col­lu­sion of pub­lic of­fi­cials dur­ing the per­pe­tra­tion of vi­o­lence, the im­punity en­joyed by the per­pe­tra­tors, and the lack of mean­ing­ful as­sis­tance for vic­tims after­wards. As a con­se­quence, vic­tims have nowhere to turn and lose con­fi­dence in the state thus be­com­ing un­will­ing to en­gage in the jus­tice process. Most end up de­fined by their vic­tim­hood or are locked into a spi­ral of wors­en­ing poverty and dis­en­fran­chise­ment.

Civil so­ci­ety in In­dia in­sists that any bill on com­mu­nal vi­o­lence should be founded on two key prin­ci­ples ad­dress­ing the fail­ure of the state. Firstly, the bill should hold pub­lic of­fi­cials ac­count­able for their roles in episodes of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing not only those at a lo­cal level but also their su­pe­ri­ors, in ac­cor­dance with the doc­trine of com­mand re­spon­si­bil­ity. Se­condly, it should em­power vic­tims to en­sure that they are able to en­gage with the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem with­out fear and that they re­ceive com­pen­sa­tion for their losses which is com­men­su­rate with their needs and al­lows them to re­build their lives.

Lit­tle hope re­mains that the bill it­self will come to fruition; cer­tainly not in the cur­rent par­lia­men­tary term. How­ever, those key prin­ci­ples will form the ba­sis for on­go­ing ad­vo­cacy by civil so­ci­ety on tack­ling com­mu­nal vi­o­lence. For ex­am­ple, vic­tims must be guar­an­teed se­cu­rity dur­ing drawnout ju­di­cial pro­cesses but it is im­pos­si­ble in a thinly-pop­u­lated ru­ral area with scant po­lice pres­ence. Greater re­gion-wide co­op­er­a­tion among hu­man rights de­fend­ers across South Asia could also yield sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits, in terms of ex­plor­ing par­al­lels in their re­spec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence, de­vel­op­ing ideas and shar­ing ex­per­tise in ad­dress­ing it.

In­dia would do well to look fa­vor­ably at the rec­om­men­da­tions made dur­ing the UPR and cre­ate an ef­fec­tive leg­isla­tive frame­work which not only ad­dresses a per­sis­tent prob­lem within its own bor­ders but also sets a pi­o­neer­ing ex­am­ple to other coun­tries in the re­gion and be­yond. David Grif­fiths works in the NGO sec­tor where he re­searches and writes ex­ten­sively on hu­man rights is­sues, pro­vides train­ing in ad­vo­cacy and works with gov­ern­ments and in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions to pro­mote hu­man rights.

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