Battling Years of Violence
Communal violence continues to penetrate Indian society
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.