If government officials and political leaders wish to act, the law — as it stands — is more than adequate to empower police and officials to prevent and control communal violence. No riot can continue for more than a few hours without the active will of the political leadership of governments that violence should persist and indeed spread; and the active abetment of police and civil officials to prolong the slaughter and arson. Communal carnages occur because these are systematically planned and executed by communal organisations, and because governments — legally and morally charged to protect all citizens — deliberately refuse to douse the fires, and instead allow rivers of innocent blood to flow.
I regard such abetment of slaughter by public officials to be one of the gravest crimes possible in public life. In order to protect minorities from communal pogroms and mass violence, we do not need a law which adds further to the powers of police and civil authorities. Ironically, such a law will achieve the exact reverse of what it claims to seek. The consistent experience of minorities is that greater powers in the hands of police would only be used against them. There is great unease with declaring regions as ‘disturbed’. In large swathes of India’s Northeast and Kashmir, people have lived in the shadows of similar declarations, which give extraordinary powers to security forces. These routinely lead to crushing of people’s elementary democratic freedoms.
We need a law which forces the police and police officials to be legally answerable to the people who they are responsible to serve and protect effectively and impartially. In present law, public officials can at best be charged with active conspiracy and participation in mass violence (although even this is rarely done). But the worst crimes of police and civil authorities, and those in command positions such as chief ministers, are of deliberately and maliciously refusing to take action to prevent and control violence. We need law to recognise such deliberate inaction — because of which killings, rape and violence continue unchecked for days and sometimes weeks — to be grave and punishable crimes against humanity. In most episodes of communal violence, states are partisan in extending relief and compensation. The survivors of the Nellie massacre of 1983 were paid a mere Rs 5,000 for each death, against a total of around Rs 700,000 for the families of those killed in the Sikh massacre of 1984. Such an implied hierarchy of official valuation of human lives of people of different persuasions and ethnicity is intolerable. The law must establish binding standards for awarding compensation, and duties relating to rescue, relief camps, rebuilding of homes, livelihoods and places of worship.
The National Advisory Council (NAC) has produced a draft law to prevent communal violence and end impunity, by making public officials legally answerable to the people for their acts — and failures to act — which lead to the brutal and criminal loss of innocent lives. The NAC draft law is currently under debate. However, we are convinced that we need a law which creates the offence of dereliction of duty of public officials who deliberately fail to protect targeted vulnerable groups. The public accountability is at the heart of the NAC draft Bill. We also need a law which establishes binding duties and standards for relief and rehabilitation.
I have spoken to victims of caste and communal carnages in many parts of the country. I have found the most important reason they cannot find closure even years later is because legal justice is not done. ‘How can we forget, even less forgive, if we see the man who raped our daughter or killed our father walk free? How are we the equal citizens on this land?’
The right to information changed on its head the relationship of public servants with the people, by enabling them to question them for the probity of their actions. We believe the communal violence Bill must carry this further, by enabling them to ask whether they did all they should to protect all citizens against mass violence, regardless of their religious faith, gender, caste and ethnicity. Only such a law can stem the rivers of innocent blood that flow periodically across this land. Only such a law can secure secular democracy. Only such a law would be a true tribute to the memory of persons such as Iqbal Ansari who struggled through their lives for the dream of an India free from fear and riots.