Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dump NAC’s communal bill - Sudheendra Kulkarni

In the wake of Anna Hazare’s recent fast over the Jan Lokpal Bill (which has some serious flaws), some angry critics asked: “Who are these unelected civil society representatives to coerce a democratically elected government to pass a particular law? They have no faith in the Constitution.” What these critics conveniently overlooked is that the UPA government itself has institutionalised a body of unelected representatives of civil society, the National Advisory Council, with the specific mandate to “provide policy and legislative inputs to Government.” There is no provision for NAC in the Constitution, and certainly not for a body whose chairperson wields more effective power than the Prime Minister himself. No doubt, some of its individual members are distinguished personalities from the domain of social-sector development, but the concept of NAC is nothing but an unconcealed and unacceptable deviation from the Constitutional scheme of governance and law-making. 

In spite of enjoying enormous clout in policy review and law-making, NAC’s own functioning has, so far, never been subjected to any review by Parliament. Precisely because NAC and its chairperson enjoy authority without accountability, its policy pronouncements and draft bills exert subtle and not-so-subtle coercive pressure on the government. Have you ever heard a single Congress minister, MP or senior government official criticising NAC on any matter?

If Sonia Gandhi wanted her party to interface with civil society organisations and to use their inputs to provide suitable advice to government, it would have been laudable. After all, political parties (BJP included), their elected representatives and bureaucrats rarely seek policy and governance ideas from civil society groups. But she has done next to nothing to strengthen the interface between civil society and her own party and its MPs, MLAs and state governments. She has also done next to nothing to get her MPs and MLAs to better perform their primary functions of law-making, policy-review and monitoring of governmental activities. What she and the UPA government have done is to disempower MPs and empower an extra-Constitutional body in something as basic as drafting of legislations and reviewing the government’s flagship programmes. And this body claims to have expertise on diverse issues ranging from communal politics to land acquisition! Although NAC calls itself ‘National’, it is not broadbased in its membership and working groups, nor in its consultation with civil society organisations of varied ideological persuasions.

With these prefatory remarks on NAC, I draw readers’ attention to one of the most dangerous, discriminatory and ill-conceived draft bills ever to come up for consideration of the Union Cabinet since Independence. The Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011, prepared by NAC and cleared by its chairperson, reeks of the mindset of minority communalism, which the Congress has frequently appeased for vote-bank considerations. Some critics have slammed the bill for infringing on the powers of state governments. A valid criticism. 

However, the bill’s real danger lies in the fact that it holds individuals and organisations of only the majority community, and never the minority community, responsible for any communal violence. Thus, the perpetrators of the torching of the train at Godhra would not be covered under this proposed law, nor would those foreign-funded church organisations who are indulging in systematic conversion of the SCs, STs and the other poor in Hindu society based on clandestine hate propaganda against Hinduism. (They never target the Muslim poor since the repercussions of doing so would be predictable.) Stigmatising the majority community as ipso facto a victimiser in any incident of communal violence, irrespective of the facts of the case, and declaring members of a minority community to be always innocent victims is a perversion of all canons of law, besides being a terrible blow to India’s national unity and integrity. NAC’s law would not cover Shia-Sunni conflicts, nor incidents like the chopping of the hand of a Christian professor in Kerala last year by a Muslim radical group, since both the victim and the victimiser in such cases belong to minority communities. Similarly, it would not consider the derogative description of Hindus as kafirs and heathens as hate speech. It would also condone widespread discriminatory activities by minority educational institutions—something that prompted Sandeep Dikshit, a Congress MP and son of Delhi’s chief minister, to describe St Stephen’s College a “communal institution”. As regards the draconian punitive provisions proposed by NAC, they are an affront to a democratic state and society. The bill’s basic conceptual flaw is that it equates communal violence with terrorist violence. But none should be surprised if the Congress, which opposed an anti-terror law tooth and nail until 26/11, backs NAC’s politically motivated bill without the slightest demur.

Communal violence is a blot on India, irrespective of whether members of community A, B or C get killed. It must be put down with a heavy hand, irrespective of whether it is fomented by Hindu or non-Hindu communal organisations. But let us also remember that there are many effective ways, in addition to sincere implementation of the existing laws, to neutralise the poison of communalism. India’s age-old plural social-cultural-spiritual traditions provide rich and reliable resources to promote inter-faith harmony and peace. It is sad to see that the Congress party, which was once a natural political manifestation of these nationalistic traditions, is about to fall prey to a toxic legislative enterprise by a cabal of Hindu-bashing activists.

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