22 June-2014, TOI: In his first address to Parliament on behalf of the new government, President Pranab Mukherjee announced that a “national plan” would be chalked out in consultation with states to curb incidents of communal violence. This was apparently in keeping with a “policy of zero tolerance” towards riots. On June 11, while responding to the debate on the President’s address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on the targeted killing of a Muslim techie in Pune by a Hindu mob over an inflammatory message posted on Facebook by somebody else. For a leader burdened with the baggage of post-Godhra riots, Modi did not however give any indication of how the proposed national plan on communal violence would differ from the policy of the previous government.
Issues that Modi will have to address while formulating his “national plan” on communal violence
The existing policy is spelt out in what is known as the “15-point programme for the welfare of minorities”. Recognizing the fact that minorities are more vulnerable to targeted violence, the last three points of this programme are devoted to “prevention and control of communal riots”. On the preventive aspect, the policy stipulates that in the areas that have been identified as “communally sensitive and riot prone”, district and police officials of “the highest known efficiency, impartiality and secular record” should be posted. Since the prevention of communal tension is anyway one of the primary duties of the district magistrate and superintendent of police, their performance in this regard should be “an important factor in determining their promotion prospects”.
The other two points related to communal violence envisage speedy prosecution of cases and adequate rehabilitation for riot victims. Though Modi clarified in Parliament that he did not regard “focused activity” for the welfare of Muslims as “appeasement”, it remains to be seen if he will retain a differential approach to communal violence as well. More importantly, whether he will also, drawing from the lessons of 2002, upgrade the quality and integrity of investigation by institutionalizing the principle of involving police officers from outside the affected state.
What proved contentious in Gujarat, or for that matter even in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, was not just the charge of shielding culprits but also the alleged insensitivity to victims who had taken shelter in relief camps. In his earlier avatar as chief minister, Modi had infamously dubbed them as “child producing centres”. Within no time of his elevation to the Prime Minister’s post, Modi is set to fulfill his promise of enhancing the rehabilitation package for Kashmiri Pandits. There is a need to display similar concern for those displaced by other communal conflicts.
Another important learning from the 2002 experience was the courage instilled in victims to testify fearlessly in the courts against powerful miscreants like Maya Kodnani. That was thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision to entrust the task of witness protection to a central paramilitary force rather than the local police. To its credit, the 15-point programme addresses the importance of diversity in the police ranks for them to be effective in dealing with communal situations. It says that in the recruitment of police personnel, both the state and Central governments should give “special consideration to minorities”. In order to achieve diversity without adopting quotas, the composition of the selection committees should also be “representative”. Despite this, the percentage of recruitment from those communities remains far below the proportion of their population. From the latest available figures, out of 60,784 persons recruited to the Central paramilitary forces in 2012-12, just 3,404 belonged to minority communities, working out to no more than 5.6%. The big question, therefore, is whether Modi will carry on with — and indeed enforce more vigorously — this policy of affirmative action in police recruitments. Or, will he — sticking to his rhetoric of defining secularism as “India First” — disallow any special consideration to minorities, and thereby make it easier for a homogenous police force to behave in a communally biased manner?
The challenge of balancing change with continuity is not limited to high profile areas like foreign affairs and economic policy. It applies to communal violence as well, despite the prolonged stalemate over a special law mooted by the previous government in the wake of the Gujarat riots. Among the sticking points were the concept of command responsibility (so that officers up the hierarchy are held accountable) and the proposal of facilitating central intervention (in egregious instances of state complicity). For all the reservations expressed by BJP during the UPA reign, Modi cannot brush aside these ideas while formulating his plan on communal violence. Besides, the plan should take into account the growing incidence of cyber incitement and proliferation of hate groups across the country. Whatever the debate about his accountability for the 2002 carnage, here is a chance for Modi to redeem himself by addressing all the issues necessary to prevent and control communal violence.