Playing the religious card

Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

The Ashok Gehlot Cabinet's decision on the manner of handling investigations into certain types of charges against religious leaders faces protests from women's organisations and civil liberties groups.

THE Congress(I) government in Rajasthan has had to face several challenges in the past few months. It tackled, with a fair amount of success, the problems created by the provocative Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Pravin Togadia and the contentious issue of reservations for the poor among the upper castes. For doing so, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot scored political points and earned plaudits from his party leadership at the recent conclave of Congress(I) Chief Ministers in Srinagar.

However, doubts about the secular intentions of the government have arisen in the context of a Cabinet decision taken on May 21. The Cabinet, after considering a report by one of its sub-committees, recommended that in all those cases where well-known saints and religious leaders are accused of acts involving moral turpitude, including rape and murder, investigations following the registration of a first information report (FIR) should be conducted at the level of an officer of rank not lower than Deputy Superintendent of Police. Also, where the investigation requires the arrest of those leaders who have a large following, the DSP or the Superintendent of Police ought to take the permission of higher authorities.

The Cabinet decision comes in the context of a 1997 case involving a religious leader from the Jain community, Muni Lokendra Vijay. He was accused of raping the mother of one of his acolytes in his ashram at Bheenmal in Jalore district. The alleged victim filed an FIR, but even before the law could take its course, the muni took his own life. The Jain community protested against the charges of rape but the alleged victim, Naina Jogani, refused to withdraw her charge. Women's organisations took up her cause and demanded justice.

As per the FIR lodged at the Bheenmal police station on September 6, Muni Lokendra Vijay raped her on September 4, 1997. The muni was taken to the police station for interrogation and released later following protests from the Jain community. He committed suicide on September 10 by slashing his veins and consuming acid. The incident had rocked the Rajasthan legislature, with legislators of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party belonging to the Jain community and the Opposition Congress claiming that the allegation was false, and that the community was being targeted.

In order to calm tempers and perhaps mollify the community, the BJP government led by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat set up an inquiry commission under Justice V.S. Kokje of the Rajasthan High Court to probe the allegations of rape and the suicide. (Kokje was made Governor of Himachal Pradesh recently.) In a notification, the State government said the one-man inquiry commission would submit its report within three months. The commission submitted its report in March 2002. For some strange reason, the Gehlot government did not make it public despite repeated requests by women's organisations and civil liberty groups to do so.

In fact, the reports of several inquiry commissions, some of them more than a decade old, concerning serious incidents, are yet to be made public. Among them are the reports of the Justice Tibrewal Commission that inquired into the riots in Jaipur in 1990 in the wake of the Rath Yatra led by L.K. Advani, the Justice K.S. Lodha Commission that inquired into the carnage in Kumher near Bharatpur in June 1992 where 20 Dalits were lynched, and the Rajendra Saxena Commission that inquired into the police firing in 1997 on members of the minority community in Shastri Nagar in Jaipur. The High Court had directed the government in September 2002 to table the K.S. Lodha Commission report, a demand that Dalit organisations had been making since 1996.

On May 21, 2003, the Cabinet took up the Kokje Commission report and also a report on the matter prepared by a Cabinet sub-committee. Three points pinpointed by the Kokje Commission were considered by the Cabinet committee. In essence, all three pertained to the setting up of certain clear procedures for the investigation of charges against religious leaders or "dharmik netas". The Cabinet committee, however, differed with the commission's view that before arresting religious leaders, the police should make their intention clear, in writing. In fact, the Cabinet decision on the whole does not contradict the Kokje recommendations. There might be semantic differences, but it is much the same.

Under the banner of the Mahila Atyachar Virodhi Jan Andolan, several organisations, including the All India Democratic Women's Association, the National Federation of Indian Women, the People's Union for Civil Liberties, the All India Progressive Women's Association, the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, the National Muslim Women's Welfare Society and the Rajasthan University Women's Association, asked the government to withdraw the decision.

But the government remained tight-lipped even as protests mounted. Criticising the decision, representatives of the Andolan said that not only was the move to give special treatment to religious leaders unconstitutional, but it went against the basic principles of secularism envisaged in the Constitution. They said it was a move inspired solely by the coming Assembly elections. In the past 53 years, they argued, no other State had sanctioned special treatment for members of any religious community.

In the face of protests - the Andolan staged a demonstration in front of the Secretariat on May 27 - the implementation of the decision appears to have been deferred.

THE organisations opposing the Cabinet decision fear that criminal elements within religious communities would get emboldened by such moves and that victims would further retreat behind the cloak of silence. Nisha Sidhu of the NFIW spoke in this context of an incident in 2000 in which 11 persons, including two priests, raped a pregnant Dalit woman in a temple in Alwar district. A team comprising members of women's organisations including AIDWA, which visited the village of the victim, were told that the girl and her family would be excommunicated for bringing shame on the community.

Another instance that Sidhu narrated involved the gang rape of a girl in a Jaipur hotel by three persons claiming to be tantriks.

The State secretary of AIDWA, Sumitra Chopra, said that women's organisations had been for long demanding the tabling of the Kokje report. She said that the decision was totally "objectionable" and that women's organisations were determined to fight it. Kavita Srivastava of the PUCL wondered why those sadhus and munis who indulged in criminal activities deserved preferential treatment.

The Gehlot government clearly had not bargained for such a reaction. It is clear that some sections of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) will have to be amended if the Cabinet decision is to be implemented. Under Section 156 of the CrPC, a police officer in charge of a police station is empowered to take action with regard to any cognisable offence, even without the order of a magistrate. But according to the Cabinet decision, his powers will stand curtailed. Said Prem Kishan Sharma, president of the State unit of the PUCL: "Even if they were to bring about an amendment to the CrPC, they would not be able to do so for it will be discriminatory and in violation of the principle of equality envisioned in Article 14 of the Constitution."

There have been several incidents involving atrocities against women committed by religious leaders or their followers. One of these involved Baba Jairam Das, the religious head of the Ramsnehi sect, which claims to have 1.5 lakh followers in Jaipur itself. In 2001, he was charged with murdering Sudha Sharma, an office-bearer of the Hindu Mahasabha, who had threatened to expose sexual exploitation within the sect.

The list is long and Rajasthan is not the only State where such crimes have been committed. Only the intensity and the magnitude differ. The murder of Ram Chandra Chatrapati, in Sirsa, Haryana, in November 2002, by members of a religious sect called Dera Sacha Sauda, was one such. Chatrapati, 53, the editor of Poora Sach (Complete Truth), had written consistently about the activities of the Dera ever since a letter alleging sexual exploitation by Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh, the leader of the sect, came to light in April-May 2002. The issue was picked up by several newspapers and copies of the letter were in circulation. This sect, with its headquarters in Sirsa, has branches in States including Rajasthan. It claims to have a following of more than a crore. It runs a parallel system of governance and law and order where the followers are accountable to none but the master of the Dera.

If every State goes the Rajasthan way in such matters, the effects could well be disastrous for women and for civil liberties at large.

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