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Short Arm Of The Law

A manual on how to walk the tricky road to justice

Short Arm Of The Law
Minorities In A Democracy
By James Massey
Manohar Price Not Listed
SOME months before Dangs and Staines, I went with Father Christudas of Dumka, Bihar, to police officer Kartikeyan, the man who investigated the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and currently D.G. of investigations at the National Commission for Human Rights. Christudas is the man who was stripped by a mob in the sleepy tribal town of Dumka in '97, then stripped a second time in police custody.

'Mr Dayal, you've brought me a cold case. There's little we can do,' Kartikeyan said. He had little more to say when we pointed out that we'd come almost a year earlier to the nhrc, and met with the top brass then and several times in between. But we'd not heard from the nhrc on the case in which the National Commission for Minorities (ncm) indicted the local bureaucracy and police officers, some of whom have god fathers, and fathers-in-law, in New Delhi.

Therefore we were considerably surprised when the Vajpayee government sent the nhrc to Orissa in the wake of the ghastly murder of Graham Staines, and his sons in January this year. Why the nhrc, and not the ncm? There're no answers.

There've been many arguments given for scrapping the ncm ranging from the right-wing Sangh rationale that minority rights are only a sub-set of general human rights, to the more technical one given by some in the nhrc that a toothless wonder like the ncm, lacking trained investigations and jurists, cannot be as effective as the nhrc with its platoons of former and present policemen, lawyers, judges. Both are facetious arguments, one flowing from the One-Nation-One-People-One-Culture agenda, the other a part of the bureaucratic culture of concentrating power in as few hands as possible. Minority rights are indeed a subset of universal human rights, and it's a truism that the rights of minorities cannot exist in a society which has scant regard for the rights of even the majority community, the common man. But the UN and the Indian Parliament accepted that specially vulnerable groups need additional protection. That's why the UN passed its special resolution on religious freedom, and Parliament created the national commissions for SC, ST, minorities, women, and now children.

But I'm afraid the commissions cannot bear too close a scrutiny, not even the ncm whose functionaries have been accused of playing politics-both by the Sangh parivar which sees chairman Tahir Mahmood as a red rag, and by minority groups who've felt that the commission has compromised itself; given men such as Gujarat CM, Keshubhai Patel licence to go on the rampage. It's a moot question if the Gujarat violence of December '98 could've been prevented if the ncm had given its detailed report on the violence in the summer of '98-the burning of Bibles, the corpse exhumed in Kapadwanj, the bloody reaction to Muslim youth marrying Hindu girls in some districts. But it satisfied itself by merely issuing a general statutory warning to the state government.

Nonetheless, even toothless, commissions like the ncm are vital in guarding the health of the vulnerable segments of India's plural society from the attacks of those who would believe that One Nation means One People and One Culture only. And it helps the minorities to know their rights.

James Massey, a member of the ncm, has produced this slim volume just for this purpose. The book's worth is in its appendices, which give details of statutory rights and provisions in the law to safeguard them, the role of the ncm and the methodology of how to reach out to them for timely help. It will be of use to functionaries, human rights activists and students. As with such books, it could have done with some editing, and some care in its presentation. To correct a minor error on page 53, I am not a prominent journalist of Ludhiana.

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