It would be a good idea to unify the commissions for human rights, SCs and STs into a single, broad-based reconciliation commission
Jenine di Giovanni, a reporter who was a first-hand witness to the destruction in Bosnia, Chechnya and other places, wrote: “In the aftermath of any war or genocide, healing and reconciliation are ultimate aspirations.” After some years of the end of the apartheid era in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established there under the chair of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with some other prominent members. It is not the question here as to what substantial or minor corrections the commission could achieve. The point that is made here is that it was meant to provide succour to the socially and politically ravaged South African society, and that India may also rely on such an institution for promoting social cohesion.
India in 1947 was not exactly a post-conflict country in the sense of a society after a civil war. But there is no denying that, as a consequence of the partition and the violence that followed, vast swathes of northern India were left with deep social fissures. Food was scarce, poverty, illiteracy and illness were rampant. The burden of history, and the social strife it caused, sat heavily on the shoulders of a new-born nation. So, although there was no civil war, it was confronted with many of the conditions faced by a post-conflict society.
Academics agree that colonialism invariably left the newly independent countries socially divided and economically distressed. Restorative processes in such societies perform a therapeutic role and help in building consensus. The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, had this to say about reconciliation: “The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions”.
Post-independence, there wasn’t any “truth” to be discovered in India. However, it is submitted that having a reconciliation commission (not a truth and reconciliation commission, as in South Africa) after independence or with the promulgation of the constitution in 1950 would not have been off the mark. However, due to historical reasons, the relevance of such an institutional framework is still applicable. For understanding the overall context, we may take note of the new, persistent and resolute emphasis on catering to the ‘Aspirational India’, as represented by the burgeoning middle class, along with mandated adherence to restorative justice for the masses, and the resultant social stress – the anti-Mandal agitation of 1989-90, and renewed clamour since then for reservation of jobs by various sections of society in several states – that form a continuum. Hard economics tends to ignore behavioural economics, which tends to take account of phenomenon such as conspicuous consumption and unabashed consumerism. Equally, politics disregards the long-term consequences of fiddling with aspects of national unity. It is therefore noted that demands on the system have to be addressed not with statistical skulduggery and manipulative propaganda but with a healing touch. The suggestion in this column, therefore, for good and sufficient reasons, is for having a reconciliation commission in place of the three national commissions (for the minorities, the scheduled castes, and the scheduled tribes) and a yet to be formed commission for economically weaker sections.
The constitution, and more specifically the fundamental rights and directive principles enshrined in it, postulate that competing claims should be balanced through democratic institution building, peace-making and establishment of harmony. It was felt that mechanisms should be developed to contain conflict, lessen economic and other inequalities and counter social exclusion. Towards these ends, the national human rights commission and other commissions for the minorities and scheduled groups were set up. The idea was to provide a quasi-judicial-cum-institutional redressal mechanism for perceived or real wrongs experienced by sections of people and afford opportunity to people from diverse backgrounds to grow in the way they choose. These commissions also have the scope to evaluate, monitor, recommend changes and make suo motu interventions to promote the well-being of particular sections of society.
Now, the welfare approach of state polity has mooted job reservations for economically weaker sections. The beneficiaries as well as the administrators of the scheme would need regulation and monitoring like the three other sectors named above. The umbrella for this may also be provided more explicitly and deservingly by a reconciliation commission, which can promote dialogue with all stakeholders rather than be involved with secretarial table monitoring. The former aspect can be handled better through reconciliatory methods than by issuing legal diktats, without getting the tag of a commission, qua ‘X’-community. When the intent and objectives are same for different sections, a convergence at the apex level would make the processes more broad-based and generate confidence about the commission’s equidistance, transparency, efficacy, and it would be valued for building consensus across the communities. The universalistic character of the commission may itself become its biggest strength. What is more, the functioning of the reconciliation commission may showcase the best example of mainstreaming, a very important concern, in the course of nation building.
It is well recognised that all disadvantaged sections of a country typically suffer from the same lack of access; right of entry to good schools, health services, capital, training, entrepreneurship. In short, denial of opportunities and deprivations. We unfortunately also have the spectre of caste based prejudices, communal divides and discrimination of various types that affect all these purported beneficiaries. Then why do we have different platforms for dealing with similar grievances, complaints regarding inequality, unfairness, etc. and end up looking for solution in silos? It would be more practical to have the best minds together for finding solutions in a dynamic environment for all the three or four segments, wherein a lot of give and take happens. Problems that become intractable due to segmented thinking may be easier to crack by working in concourse and by applying universal principles.
To further labour the same point, we suffer in this country on account of a plethora of overlapping institutions, with issues of conflicting jurisdictions and inconsistent turf, as also archaic laws and regulations in need of revamp. Why not make a start for amalgamation of such institutions beginning with a sector which is not only highly emotive but which often gets into huge political imbroglio and social bickering? It is in this framework that a reconciliation commission may serve a laudable role in promoting accord in a comprehensive manner and help in building a national perspective in accordance with the objectives of the constitution. However, the proposition is not only for reasons of overlap, plurality and duplication but for other cogent reasons as elaborated.
At the end, the other muse comes from the context that is very visible all around us these days. The discordant dissonance is frightening and is becoming increasingly fratricidal. On the other hand, there are attacks on institutions that work in accordance with state policy for positive discrimination and are entrusted with its monitoring. Even these commissions get veiled attacks in the worst scenario and made subject of ridicule and misconstrued criticism at the best. A more broad-based organisation and an all-compassing reconciliation commission would be able to blunt such misplaced attacks and deliver better, being more inclusive and more acceptable. Having vested with a broader spectrum of responsibility and authority, the commission will act as guardian angel for all marginalised sections of the society to provide workable solutions as also for psychological refuge and emotional shield. It may therefore come to command more respect as the apex social rights watch institution of the country. This transformation would, however, necessitate appropriate legal empowerment through legislative process and shall be in the domain of administrative cum institutional reform – a mid-course-corrected public policy – driven by the right political will. Perhaps, the poet had something like this in his mind when he wrote: “Chand bhi hairan, dariya bhi preshani me hai/ Aks kis ka hai ke itni roshni pani me hai” (The moon is awe-struck, even the river is uneasy/whose shadow is this that there is so much glimmer in water).
Hashmi, IAS (retd), is a member, Delhi Waqf Tribunal
(This article appears in the March 31, 2019 edition)