The All India Secular Forum (AISF) Mumbai chapter organized a consultation on the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill on 30th May 2011 in the J P Naik Hall, Mumbai. The speakers and the participants on the whole accepted the bill albeit some reservations. The consultation was chaired by Adv Irfan Engineer and the speakers were Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Mohammad Anees, Justice Suresh, Adv. Vijay Hiremath and Saumya Uma. The speakers threw light on the concept and context of the bill, other aspect of accountability of the officials, provisions related to procedures and evidence and gender component. The participants were activist from different organizations of Mumbai like YUVA, Awaz e Niswaan.
While putting the bill in the perspective, Dr Engineer pointed out that controlling of communal violence depends entirely on the political will and determination of the government. He cited the examples of Bihar and west Bengal which could prevent violence. The state is very powerful and unfortunately mostly is complicit in the violence to protect its political interests. There are existing laws and provisions in the constitution to prevent communal violence but these are subject to the proper and will of implementation of the state officials. To ensure justice becomes even more difficult when the centre and state have two different parties ruling. Mohammad Anees while going through the salient features of the Bill, he emphasized on defining a group in the context of this bill which is against targeted violence. The UN convention on Genocide doesn’t restrict its scope to minorities alone. Then what should constitute a group in the Indian context? Justice Suresh also pointed out to that the state tends to side the majority and thus is complicit in violence. In such a scenario there has to be an independent body which can direct and advice the government in handling cases of communal violence. But this body shouldn’t be a farce like that of NHRC. It should function more like the Election Commission. With this in mind, the National Authority was conceptualized. He also appreciated the command responsibility provision of the bill as a good feature of the bill.
While the speakers largely agreed that the present draft is much better than the previous one, some concerns still persist. One of the major concern is the having all the serious offences in Schedule II and the relatively less serious ones in schedule III. While the NAC and the civil society has relentlessly demanded a bill ensuring accountability of the state officials, this clearly drafted bill states that sanction from the state is not required for prosecution of state officials accused under schedule III but sanction is still required for the schedule II. This is an unambiguous dilution of the clause of accountability. Another objectionable clause is that the Bill gives special powers to intercept calls to the state. This is a clear violation to right to privacy and makes the state all powerful. Also some reservations were expressed on the quantum of compensation promised by the bill which will not in any way benefit the victims of communal violence who come from very poor socio economic strata.
The provision of declaring an area as internally disturbed which was much opposed in the prior bill again resurfaces in the present bill. This provision is in consonance with the Armed forces Special Powers Act which is protested and held to be undemocratic and brutal by the civil society. Along with this, Vijay also pointed out to some procedural lapses in the bill. Among these the more important were that the bill states that the statements of the witnesses must be recorded only under section 164 of CrPc. Adv Vijay feels that there must be an option of recording of the statements even under section 161 of CrPc. He also vehemently repeated that the clause requiring prior sanction of the state to prosecute state officials under schedule II must be changed. Saumya pointed out to the possibility of the National Authority being as toothless as the NHRC. Thus some skepticism on the role of the National Authority was expressed.
However, notwithstanding these reservations, the speakers and the participants overall feel that this bill is the best bargain the civil society can get from the state which always strives to protect and enhance its power. Thus they felt that though some feedback can be given on the serious concerns, the civil society must now collectively look at formulating strategies to lobby with the state to get this bill passed before the UPA is voted out or the bill collapses. Thus it was suggested that there should be more discussion on the bill in various groups and these groups must come together to decide the future course of action. AISF must encourage all its state units to facilitate this discussion and debate on the bill. The emerging concerns or feedback can then be put on the NAC website before 10th June. The possibility of extending the deadline for the feedback can be explored since very little time is given to the civil society to interact and debate this bill. Also Justice Suresh added that there can be some discussion on the possibility of inclusion of a provision in the bill to protect human rights defenders like Teesta Setalvad who is threatened and falsely implicated by the state. Thus activists bravely fighting the state’s might to ensure justice must be protected under this bill.