UPA's Unaddressed Agendas
UPA's Unaddressed Agendas
"The Centre's apathy towards the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage and its victims' plight is incomprehensible. It must rehabilitate and secure justice for them and address social policy issues, including repeal of POTA and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. "
A glaring absence in Manmohan Singh's first-ever address to the nation as Prime Minister - otherwise remarkable for its passionate appeal for distributive justice and equity - was the total elision of any reference to secularism and recent assaults on it. The absence was all the more perturbing because this was his first attempt to explain the meaning of the popular vote that brought his government to power, and to outline its priorities.
One of the strongest messages the electorate delivered was that it opposes the Bharatiya Janata Party's Machiavellian politics of manipulation of identities; it reaffirms pluralism and equal rights for citizens regardless of religion. That was the true significance of the National Democratic Alliance's defeat in 23 out of 28 States and its poor performance in Uttar Pradesh, and above all, Gujarat.
Manmohan Singh's is the first government to take power in New Delhi after the Gujarat pogrom. Millions of people looked to him for some acknowledgement of the uniquely horrifying nature of the butchery of 2,000 Muslims carried out with state collusion, and above all, its "genocidal "nature. Gujarat was not just another case of communal rioting. It was, and remains, very special - a marker of India's descent into an abyss, and of the failure of its state and society to remedy the terrible wrongs inflicted upon innocent citizens.
Manmohan Singh disappointed those who expected such acknowledgement. All he talked about was "the security and welfare of all minorities". But secularism is "much more than that " - it is about separating religion from politics and refusing to privilege one religious group with a special, primary claim to represent India and its culture.
In the weeks that have passed since Manmohan Singh's June 24 speech, there has been no energetic attempt by his government to remedy this lapse and address the social agendas outlined in the United Progressive Alliance's National Common Minimum Programme, barring the "detoxification" drive in education, the inquiry announced by Laloo Prasad into the Godhra episode, and some desultory action in Doordarshan. In particular, the promise "to preserve, protect and promote social harmony and to enforce the law... to deal with all obscurantist and fundamentalist elements who seek to disturb social amity and peace" remains unfulfilled.
The UPA cannot possibly promote "social harmony" or deal with "fundamentalist elements" unless it acts purposively on Ayodhya and Gujarat. On Ayodhya, the agenda is simple and clear. The Centre must rectify the charge-sheets against the accused by restoring the conspiracy charge, and ensure speedy trial. The hearing of all associated litigation, including the land-title dispute, should be expedited. The compromised excavation report of the Archaeological Survey of India, produced under political pressure, must be withdrawn. And there must be a fresh, clean approach to settling the mosque-temple issue through consensus, without the involvement of dubious elements.
ON Gujarat, the government will have to take tough decisions and act boldly and with despatch. It must begin by recognising that the situation there remains abnormal. The minorities continue to be menaced, harassed and discriminated against in varied ways. The authorities, hostile to Muslims, have no will to provide a modicum of relief and rehabilitation. Prosecution of and punishment for the culprits of even the goriest episodes of violence remains a mirage. A majority of those who suffered dislocation have not been fully rehabilitated - economically or psychologically. Many are in desperate need of survival assistance. Segregation has become a fact of life in Gujarat's cities. The perpetrators of the carnage and all the concerned institutions remain in denial mode - breaking out of which is a precondition for reaffirming justice and returning to security.
This has been amply documented. Many speakers corroborated all this at an excellent conference on July 29 in New Delhi, organised by groups working among the victims of the carnage. A broad consensus has emerged among them on a Citizens' Charter of Demands after their deliberations on June 1 and 2. The demands fall into three categories: compensation and rehabilitation; accountability and preventive measures; and legal justice. They deserve respect because they are based on the "actual experience "of the victims of the Gujarat pogrom over two years.
Of the victims, some 3,000 families (or over 20,000 people) are destitute and "in need of food aid on a daily basis". Altogether, about one lakh people need economic support. A majority of families which suffered death, injury and loss of property and fled their homes received less than an abysmal Rs.10,000. One estimate of the loss caused by the anti-Muslim violence is Rs.5-7,000 crores. The government has not even spent "3 per cent "of this on relief - cumulatively.
The Citizens' Charter demands relief based on "the most progressive features" of recent "compensation packages" like those for the survivors of the Cauvery riots. Close attention must be paid to those who were forced into Muslim ghettos like Juhapura (renamed "mini-Pakistan" by Narendra Modi & Co.) and separated from their means of livelihood in the mixed localities where they lived earlier. They must be given soft loans.
Many rehabilitation colonies have not been recognised by the State government, which long ago abandoned its duty to look after the victims and closed down relief camps. They must be "regularised" to make them "eligible for land title, electricity, water supply, approach roads, primary schools, etc." The government must establish new settlements, especially in rural areas, for about 1,000 families which are unable (although willing) to return to their villages for fear that they will be attacked. Many have been warned by their Bharatiya Janata Party-Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Bajrang Dal tormentors that they cannot return unless they withdraw the criminal complaints they filed.
The government must rebuild the 700 places of worship and cultural importance destroyed in the post-Godhra carnage. "Particularly important is the rebuilding of the symbols of Gujarat's syncretic culture like the mazar of Wali Gujarati" (an Urdu pioneer), in Ahmedabad, and of the great singer Ustad Fayaz Khan in Baroda.
On accountability, the Centre must set up a high-level commission of inquiry into the post-Godhra violence. A.G. Noorani ("The Hindustan Times", July 27) has made a powerful argument as to why the Nanavati Commission cannot be trusted. (The judge in interviews to the media on May 16 and May 20, 2003, exonerated the State as well as the Bajrang Dal and VHP leaders.) Its terms of reference are flawed. A new Commission is in order with more comprehensive terms, including the "causes and course" of the violence, the role of the kar sevaks in Godhra, and the culpability of the Modi Cabinet and state bureaucrats and police officials. The Commission should determine how hatred against the minorities was systematically generated through posters and leaflets, as well as textbooks.
The UPA must set up a mechanism to prosecute Modi, his colleagues and their officers, who planned, instigated or abetted the carnage or failed to prevent and control the violence, protect the victims, and extend relief. It should reward the (few) officers who performed their duties with exemplary fairness and courage. Also necessary is an inquiry into Modi's partisan appointments of public prosecutors and judges in the post-Godhra cases.
As the first necessary step towards legal justice, the Centre must re-examine the 2,000-plus cases (of a total of 4,200 registered in respect of the post-Godhra violence), which were closed or in which the accused were acquitted. This is in keeping with the recommendation of the "amicus curiae" in a Supreme Court writ petition (No. 109 of 2003).
It is of the utmost importance that this government revise the NDA's plea "against "transferring major cases pertaining to gross episodes of violence like the attack on Best Bakery out of Gujarat. Unless that State's judiciary and police are thoroughly revamped - which will not happen in a hurry - there can be no justice in Gujarat. The Citizens' Charter also demands that special courts must hear cases of rape and violence against women. These should have only women judges, public prosecutors and lawyers, and should conduct in-camera hearings.
However, this agenda will not be complete unless the Prevention of Terrorism Act is repealed with retrospective effect, and all POTA charges in Gujarat cancelled, "in recognition of the painful fact that the State government openly misused this draconian Act to victimise exclusively members of the minority community". "Only one of the 280-plus people arrested under POTA is a non-Muslim "(a Sikh). Relatives of suspects have been picked up, detained and tortured, on the flimsiest of evidence. The use of POTA in Gujarat has been entirely communal in motivation, character and effect.
The argument against POTA is overwhelmingly powerful - like that against its predecessor, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, or TADA, a story of lawlessness and persecution of innocent people: 72,000 cases with a conviction rate of under 2 per cent. The case against POTA is strengthened by the damning evidence that has emerged in the course of hearings by the People's Tribunal on POTA in March, of which I was a member.
The Human Rights Law Network has published a 600-page report: "The Terror of POTA and Other Security Legislation" (available from 65, Masjid Road, Jangpura, New Delhi 110 014, and at email@example.com). Study after case study in this volume speaks of police excesses, bypassing of procedures, torture, concoction of evidence, planting of weapons, and victimisation of political opponents or social activists, sometimes even schoolboys.
UPA constituents and their supporters had all opposed POTA. They must translate this into repeal of this vile law. Regrettably, the UPA seems to be hesitant. It reportedly wants to replace POTA with another law, retaining key provisions (definitions of "terrorism" and "terrorist organisations", preventive detention, confession as evidence, etc.). This would be the height of duplicity. As the National Human Rights Commission has said, laws like POTA are not needed to combat terrorism. They encourage the police to look for shortcuts to gathering evidence and to act lawlessly, while giving them immunity.
Even more draconian than POTA is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in force in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir. This has a terrible pedigree, which should embarrass the Congress, the UPA's leading constituent. The AFSPA is modelled on the colonial Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance, 1942, which was enacted to neutralise the Quit India Movement. The Ordinance's fundamental provisions remain unaltered in the Act of 1958. Under it, the government can declare any area, district, or a whole State, "disturbed", conferring upon the military extraordinary powers - without accountability. An officer of any rank in a "disturbed" area can "enter and search any premises without warrant", destroy it, and carry out an arrest on "reasonable suspicion" that a person has committed or "is about to commit "a cognisable offence.
If the officer "is of opinion that it is necessary to do so", he may kill any person who violates or may violate prohibitory orders, including trivial ones like Section 144. The Act's most obnoxious part is Section 6 which grants immunity to the armed forces - "no prosecution... or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or "purported to be done"" under the Act. "Purported to be done" takes the cake. So the Army is the judge, the jury, the prosecutor - and the executioner!
The use of the AFSPA to kill innocent people or mere suspects has enraged the public in Manipur, which seethes today with righteous anger after the alleged abduction, torture, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old Manipuri woman, while under the custody of Assam Rifles.
The AFSPA makes a mockery of many principles: the right to fair trial, rights to defence and appeal, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and equality before the law. It violates the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 by allowing a military officer to kill people - on mere suspicion, so long he "purports" to be acting under this terrible law.
There can no place for a law like this in a civilised society, even one threatened by the worst forms of terrorism. The state, or its armed representatives, cannot take a person's life - at least not without a fair trial, with adequate opportunity for defence, and proper conviction. The UPA will do grave damage to its credibility - and to its own popular mandate - if it retains the AFSPA in whatever form. The Act must go lock, stock and barrel.
Copyright 2004 Frontline