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Rights groups propose law on communal riots

By Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi
Last updated on: December 08, 2004 08:56 IST
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Leading rights groups in India have jointly prepared a draft bill on communal violence that they feel will safeguard the rights of victims who are mostly members of the minority communities.

The draft bill has been submitted to the Congress-led United Progressive alliance government, which in its common minimum programme had promised such a law.

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The idea of proposing the bill was necessitated by the sectarian violence in Gujarat in 2002, say rights groups. The draft bill has been prepared by four voluntary groupsĀ -- Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network and Anhad, Ahmedabad-based Jansangharsh Manch and Mumbai-based Centre for Study of Society and Secularism.

Releasing a report on the issue before mediapersons, activist Harsh Mander said, "There have been several communal riots in India after Independence. But the experience in Gujarat taught us many new things."

Mander was a bureaucrat in Gujarat who resigned after the riots.

"In Gujarat, the state played a role in not preventing the spread of the violence and tacitly supported the rioters. It even refused to open relief camps and closed down those opened by private groups."

Supreme Court lawyer Colin Gonsalves, who briefed mediapersons on the clauses in the draft bill, said, "As of now, we don't have any law that holds a state responsible for communal violence. We can only hold it morally accountable but not legally. Therefore such a law is required to prevent communal violence in India."

The report says that in most of the communal riots in the country, police played a partisan role by supporting the majority community. All the enquiry commissions constituted subsequently to probe the violence lacked the power to take any action against the guilty. Convictions were rare and that too after several years.

The report cites the example of the Srikrishna Commission that probed the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. The commission indicted 23 police officers for crimes against minorities. The state government later promoted the officers.

Accusing the political parties in power and the police of being active participants in communal riots, the rights groups have proposed a 32-page draft bill.

It calls for punishment to people making hate speeches on communal lines. It suggested a ban on educational material that creates communal hatred.

The state should act to stop the economic and social boycott of one community by another. Mander pointed out that many housing societies in Gujarat have banned Muslims. He wants the state to stop such segregation.

The draft bill proposes a law to stop people from destroying religious structures and a ban on the use of cultural symbols as weapons. It criticises the distribution of trishuls (tridents) by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

The law calls for punishing policemen who do not register cases or do not investigate communal violence. It wants to hold the police responsible for providing security to the victims.

It wants action against lawyers and doctors who discriminate on communal lines. Mander said some bar associations in Gujarat had passed a resolution asking members not to defend members of the minority community.

It seeks verification of public prosecutors, who are appointed by the state government, to filter out those aligned with communal groups. Mander said that many of the accused in the Gujarat riots had been released on bail by the tacit support of public prosecutors.

It calls for providing more teeth to enquiry commissions. As of now, the state is not bound to act on the recommendations of enquiry commissions. Evidence given before an enquiry commission is not admission as evidence in a court of law.

Mander said since there are no words like 'communal crime' or 'hate speech' in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), there is no law to make the police to act against such crimes.

"It is just a recommendation. We hope the government will soon come out with a law, as it is the need of the hour. The Congress party should fulfill its promises," said Mander.
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Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi