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Tuesday, 1 May 2012


Minority protection

Group entitlements imprison individuals and societies, inexorably pushing them towards dangerous collective identities.

Does this position imply that minorities can do no wrong? Is the majority community always to blame? By the 1940s, thinking long and hard about this question, Jawaharlal Nehru had started distinguishing between minority communalism and majority communalism. Both were bad, but majority communalism was infinitely worse. Nehru detested Jinnah's communalism, but called Hindu communalism the greatest danger to India.

This position does not imply that minority communalism ought to be ignored. Nehru had harsh words to say about Muslim organisations and leaders during a Hindu- Muslim riot in Aligarh in 1954, and wanted those organisations punished. My own research in Hyderabad uncovered many instances when Muslim organizations were egregiously complicit in riots. Hyderabad's mass killers came in both hues, Hindu and Muslim; Hindus had no monopoly over rioting. Other researchers came to similar conclusions. Agar Hindu pachees Musalman marenge, said Hyderabad's Muslim wrestlers to Sudhir Kakar, a psychologist who also researched violence, to hum chhabbees Hindu marenge - yeh jo riot hai, woh one-day cricket ki tarah hota hai (if the Hindus kill 25 Muslims, we will kill 26 Hindus - a riot is like a one-day cricket game).

In sum, therefore, fundamentally because of the easy, though erroneous, equation ofmajorities with nationhood, a democracy must protect its minorities from violence. The NAC is right to emphasise the vulnerability of minorities and to stress that the Indian state can behave in a highly majoritarian fashion. But do we need a new law?

The second important aspect of the bill is its insistence that if "communal and targeted violence" against minorities takes place, it will automatically be assumed that the civil servant in charge of law and order has not exercised "lawful authority vested in him or her under law" and he or she "shall be guilty of dereliction of duty". The bill makes civil servants legally liable for riots. They will be fired, demoted or reprimanded, if a riot takes place on their watch. 

The NAC's assumption is that if civil servants were personally liable for riots, there is a greater chance they would act according to the rule-book, and not wait for political signals from above. But this assumption can only be half-right. The NAC has not confronted a factual question. Why has Aligarh been so riot-prone, whereas Bulandshahr, a town next door, has rarely had a communal riot? Why have Meerut and Morabadad been so communally nasty, 

whereas the neighbouring Muzaffarnagar and Bareilly hardly ever witnessed a communal riot after independence? Did Aligarh, Meerut and Moradabad have riots because the civil servants stationed there ignored, or supported, the killing of Muslims, or is there something about the local relations of Hindus and Muslims in these towns that made them riot-prone? 

Indeed, during 1950-95, as I calculated in my book on communal violence, a mere eight cities of India - Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Hyderabad, Aligarh, Meerut, Delhi and Kolkata - had nearly 46 per cent of all deaths in Hindu-Muslim riots. Did these eight cities have repeated "dereliction of duty" by civil servants? Did the peaceful cities have especially duty-driven officials and police forces? 

When I asked why he succeeded in keeping peace in smaller towns of Maharashtra but, in 1984, failed to prevent an awful communal riot in Mumbai and later in Ahmedabad, Julio Ribeiro, an outstanding police officer of post-1947 India whose commitment to duty has never been questioned, said that there was something about how social and economic life was organised in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, which made his task enormously difficult. The same question - why riots in some places, not in others - elicited an identical answer from most police officers and civil administrators I interviewed in my 10-year long study of communal violence. Would the NAC fire a Ribero, and others like him, for their inability to prevent riots? 

Riots are jointly produced. They are, in part, an outcome of how the police officials and civil administrators have performed their constitutionally assigned functions. Rioting is also, in part, a result of how social and economic life is organised in a town, whether Hindus and Muslims are segregated or integrated, and what incentives or capacities such local structures have created for politicians, always insearch of political gains, to inflame and polarise, or calm and unite, local communities. The same IAS officer who functioned well in Warangal often felt helpless in Hyderabad. The NAC would like to give more powers to the civil servant. But if riots are jointly produced by the state and society, dealing with one side of the equation is surely not enough. 

The bill also envisions creation of a new set of state institutions: a National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation, headquartered in Delhi. There will be corresponding institutions at the state level, too. A massive bureaucracy will thus be created. 

This great institutional proposal invites a basic question: Does the NAC expect the future of India to be as riot-ridden as India's past has been? Massive law-and-order bureaucracies are normally created to deal with a frequently recurring problem, not for something highly infrequent or rare. We need to ask if riots will be occasional episodes, or regular occurrences, in the coming years. If riots are going to be occasional, we can't justify the creation of a huge permanent bureaucracy.

The NAC appears to be a prisoner of India's past, especially of Gujarat 2002. What happened in Gujarat was a crushing embarrassment for all liberal Indians and every effort should be made to punish the guilty, but to build a new bureaucracy to prevent another Gujarat 2002, which is in any case unlikely in the future, will be a terrible mistake. 

  1., May 26, 2011
  2., May 30, 2011
  3. The Indian Express, May 29, 2011
  4. June 2,2011
  5. The Pioneer, May 30.2011
  6. The Statesman, June7, 2011
  7. The Pioneer, August 9, 2011
  8. The Pioneer dated June 22, 2011
  9. The Indian Express, July 16, 2011; Varshney teaches political science at Brown University and is the author of'Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India'

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