If there is any lingering doubt about the lack of legitimacy of the National Advisory Council (NAC), the mass abstentions of five chief ministers from the meeting of the National Integration Council (NIC) on Saturday should remove that.
A key issue for discussion at the NIC was the NAC’s Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill. Every opposition-ruled state, and one Congress ally, the Trinamool Congress, had problems with it.
The problems were on two fronts: the Bill transgresses states’ rights, and the wording of the bill seems to suggest that targeted violence is largely driven by the majority community. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) clearly had problems with the latter construct.
The problem lies basically with the definition of the victim “group” in para 3(e) of the draft bill. The bill says “group” means a religious or linguistic minority, in any state in the Union of India, or scheduled castes and scheduled tribes within the meaning of clauses (24) and (25) of Article 366 of the Constitution of India...”
The obvious counter-point to this clause is simple: why is it necessary to define “group” so narrowly? Why can’t violence be targeted against any group? The communal violence bill would be equally powerful without this definition, since all it had to do was focus on targeted violence against any group.
Quite obviously, the need to opt for this particular definition of the “victim” group stems from the Congress’ political interests. It needs to woo the minority vote – which accounts for 14 percent of the electorate. This is the only explanation for the NAC’s effort to opt for such a narrow and politically insensitive definition.
The inclusion of the SC/ST is also suspect, for there is very strong protection available to this category of people under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, anyway. The attempt to drag SC/ST into the Communal Violence Bill is thus a red herring – a patent attempt to widen the support base for the bill among people who are normally grouped under the category “majority community".
The problem with the NAC is that it is not “national” in character, since its membership is picked on the basis of Sonia Gandhi’s personal preferences. It is not truly representative of a wider cross-section of opinion, and certainly not inclusive – a key watchword in the UPA’s vocabulary.
The NAC’s charter says it “has been set up as an interface with civil society". But if this is so, one wonders why the UPA government had so many problems with Anna Hazare’s movement, since it was surely one more representative of civil society – and certainly demonstrated wider public support than the NAC.
The NAC is a political construct created to give Sonia Gandhi the status she was denied by her decision to opt out of the top job in 2004. Most of its members are people she is comfortable with and some of its members are, in fact, there in order to target the Congress’ principal principal opponent, the BJP.
This is the reason why we have Harsh Mander – who has made a career out of targeting the Gujarat government after the 2002 riots – the key steward of the Communal Violence Bill.
Mander’s justification for the Bill was published by The Indian Express recently:
Innumerable commissions of enquiry and fact-finding reports confirm recurring abdication of state responsibility, bias and even complicity of local administration, law enforcement and criminal justice machinery. They fail to prevent, control or provide basic relief. These include the targeting of Dalits and tribals across states; of Biharis in Maharashtra, Assam and elsewhere; of Sikhs in several states in 1984; of Muslims in Nellie, Bhagalpur, Bhiwandi, Mumbai, and Gujarat; of Tamils in Karnataka; of Christians in Kandhamal. Contrast this with any instance in which Muslims in Gujarat attack the dominant group or Biharis in Maharashtra attack the dominant group. The might of the state machinery would come down and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law and beyond. This is the reality.
He concludes: “Let us not allow this debate to be muddied by the same tired script about Hindus and Muslims, just because that is the only prism the right-wing refracts itself through.”
We could accept that statement at face value, but for this exclusion. Missing from Mander’s long list of targeted minorities is the case of Kashmir – and the ethnic cleansing of the Pandits by the majority community in that state. Was this instance a deliberate or inadvertent exclusion?
It is difficult to see how a Communal Violence Bill can be effective without carrying all major political parties with it. If the BJP – everyone’s prime contender for the label of “communal” – is excluded, how will the Bill obtain bipartisan support?
The bottomline is this: the NAC has lost its neutrality with this bill and no longer qualifies as a credible civil society representative.
If Anna Hazare was criticised for appropriating the robes of civil society, the NAC has even less legitimacy than it as it has been handpicked by a political party.
It is time to pull the plug on the NAC. There is no reason why the taxpayer should fund a body that seems politically partisan and, anyway, can only be one voice of civil society.