Communal violence legislation, a matter “of life and death” for millions of Indians
by Nirmala Carvalho
India’s federal Home Affairs minister is seeking quick approval for the Communal Violence Bill, which will impose harsher penalties on those guilty of stoking inter-religious conflict. However, Fr C. Prakash, a front-line minority rights advocate, opposes the draft proposal because it does not prevent collusion between politicians and police in communal crimes.
Mumbai (AsiaNews) – For Fr Cedric Prakash, director of Prashant, a Jesuit human rights centre, the pledge by India’s central government to adopt a law against communal violence is not enough. In his view, proposed changes to the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill are not enough to punish those responsible for violence against minorities, and thus stop the bloody incidents that have frequently marred India’s past. Speaking to AsiaNews, he addressed recent statements by India’s federal Home Affairs Minister, P Chidambaram on the matter.

In a visit to Tamil Nadu, on 13 April, the minister said that the aforementioned bill would be approved shortly and that it would be an important legal tool to prosecute people guilty of communal violence, whether based on caste or religion. Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi also called for harsher sentences and penalties for those who instigate or carry out acts of religious violence.

For years, human rights groups and the Indian Church have stressed the urgent need to change the 2005 Communal Violence Bill, especially after anti-Christian violence broke out in Orissa in the summer of 2008.

The standing committee of parliament involved in the matter has examined proposed amendments to the law. A final draft proposal should be adopted shortly before going to the full house for discussion and vote. However, Fr Prakash, a long-time critic of the legislation, remains unconvinced.

“As of now, this bill does not ensure any religious freedom or communal protection,” he said. The problem is that it gives states “powers to contain any violence against its weakest members” in spite of the fact that it is they who “are involved in perpetrating crimes against those whom they are supposed to protect. For example, Narendra Modi (Gujarat), Naveen Patnaik (Orissa) and Yedyyruppa (Karnataka) would be given powers to deal with the law even if they are the main perpetrators of the crime.”

The problem is also one of education. “The new bill should not be limited to crime prevention among the duties of the central government. It should also include all cases of hate speech, whether it is in incendiary speeches and writings by politicians like Bal Thackerey (a leader in the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party) and Modi, in manuals and curricula used in schools run by the Sangh Parivar (an umbrella organisation for Hindu nationalist associations), in the workplace or in everyday situations where discrimination is done based on caste, religion or gender.”

For Fr Prakash, it is also necessary to acknowledge openly the role played by police in communal violence. “It is crucial that the immunity granted under sections 195, 196 and 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code be removed from any statute on communal crimes.”

“Legally preventing the recurrence of situations like [those of] Gujarat and Orissa is not just a matter of security and restored trust, but also one of life and death for millions of citizens of minority faiths,” he said. “Its urgency is enhanced by the fact that over the last two decades, political parties with openly communal agendas have directly or through their political proxies captured political power in many states.” Some parties have also “emerged as the main alternative contenders for power in the central government”.