The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Money is sometimes a surprisingly effective deterrent against crime. Mr Digvijay Singh seems to think that sectarian violence is a crime which could be controlled by the imposition of hefty fines. Elections are coming up in Madhya Pradesh, and the sangh parivar does not want communal passions to cool in the state. Mr Singh’s no-nonsense punitive attitude towards this particular kind of criminal behaviour is therefore understandable. He has dug up and revived a still-born act which had intended to make communal offenders pay, over and above facing criminal charges, a cash amount of one and a half times of the damages done to life and property. The simple harshness of this punishment feels right. But there are problems.

First, there are plenty of laws in India which could be used to punish communal violence. The problem lies in the use, or abuse, of these laws. In Gujarat, the police and the state administration — that is, the entire law and order machinery — had systematically subverted the letter and spirit of the law. So invoking yet another law is no guarantee for its proper enforcement. Second, given the usually collective nature of communal violence, it may not always be possible to link specific damages with specific miscreants, and this could complicate and delay this element of the punishment. Third, using the first information report to charge the fines may not be the best way to bring this law into action, given the by-now-notorious malpractices which could happen at the FIR stage. Fourth, if this law were to be used unfairly against a particular community by the police, then it would be especially easy to do so, since the charging of the fine takes place even before the offender is actually convicted. In the right, or the wrong, hands, the very stringency of the law could be put to discriminatory use. Mr Singh will therefore have to pay stricter attention to the people who translate the law into practice, to the attitudes and biases in the police and civic authorities in the villages, towns and cities, rather than encumbering the legal system with yet another law, providing for yet another means of corrupting justice.

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