Mental shift

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Analysis: What could the Indian government do to prevent Orissa violence?

Posted by jytmkh on September 14, 2008

By: Vishal Arora.

The attacks on Christians in the eastern state of Orissa’s Kandhamal district and other parts of the state, which followed the killing of a leader of the Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on August 23, do not depict the failure of the state government alone, but also of the Central government.

For, it is not enough for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call the violence a “national shame” and not intervene to save the lives of innocent people.

According to the Indian Constitution, the country is a federal State, and law and order is a state responsibility. But, the same Constitution also mandates and provides discretionary powers to the Central government to ensure that a situation of extreme emergency does not arise in any state.

Article 355 of the Constitution states: “It shall be the duty of the Union to protect every state against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the government of every state is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” And the following Article (356) empowers the Union to proclaim an emergency, dismissing the state legislature and the executive, in case of a breakdown of the “constitutional machinery” in that state.

It is understandable that Article 356 should be invoked only in rare cases so that the federal structure of the State is not subverted. The Sarkaria Commission, headed by Justice RS Sarkaria and appointed in 1983 to research reforms to improve Center-State relations, said Article 365 should be used only in cases of extreme emergency, where failure on the part of the Union to take immediate action would lead to “disastrous consequences”.

Unfortunately, that disaster happened but the Central government budged not an inch. The attacks in Orissa claimed the lives of at least 50 people, mainly Christians who have been burnt alive or hacked to death, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands to flee to jungles for safety.

The attacks have been carrying on for more than 15 days despite the fact that most sensitive areas were under curfew and shoot-at-sight orders had been issued. The only explanation possible in such a case is that the state government, ruled by the Biju Janata Dal in partnership with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), did not want to stop the communal mayhem.

The fact that the violence was reportedly carried out by goons of the VHP, which is part of the same Sangh Parivar (family of organisations linked with Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS) that the BJP is acquiescent to, speaks volumes about why the violence spread.

The unabated communal attacks in Orissa will embolden communal forces to organise many more such large-scale riots against religious minorities. After all, the 2008 mayhem can be attributed to the failure of the Orissa police to prevent the weeklong spate of attacks in December 2007 in Kandhamal that were carried out under the pretext of avenging an alleged assault on Saraswati. And the December attacks happened because Muslims were allowed to be killed in the western state of Gujarat during in 2002 with almost total impunity.

The VHP seems to know it by experience that it is possible to kill and attack minorities with impunity in a BJP-ruled state. By imposing emergency, the Central government could have sent a strong message to the communal forces that such lawlessness cannot be tolerated in our country, which is economically progressing.

However, it seems Article 356 has been reduced to a political tool for successive central governments to be used only when it can lead to a narrow political gain. The Article has been activated more than a hundred times, but rarely to save the lives of precious people of the country. In its report in March 2002, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) stated that in at least 20 out of the more than 100 instances, the invocation of Article 356 might be termed as a “misuse”.

For instance, President’s Rule was imposed in Gujarat from September 1996 to October 1996 merely because there were incidents of violence by members of the state legislative assembly. Soli Sorabjee, former attorney general and legal luminary, said that violence within the assembly should not be treated as an instance of failure of the constitutional machinery, adding that it would otherwise become very easy for malicious legislators to dissolve a duly elected legislative body by creating pandemonium in the assembly and thereby prompting improper invocation of Article 356.

In a contrast to the 1996 move, the Union government failed to invoke Article 356 during the anti-Muslim carnage following the Godhra train fire on February 27, 2002, in Gujarat. Noted lawyer Fali S Nariman asked during a parliamentary debate: “Vital statistics tells us that there are more than 100,000 persons in refugee camps and more than 30,000 people have been chargesheeted. Are these figures not enough to compel the government to take action under articles 355 and 356?”

It is regrettable that the Congress party, which rules the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, woos religious minorities before elections claiming to be committed to secularism, but when the Christian minority community needs protection from communal forces, the party is doing mere lip service.

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