A petitioner is seeking contempt proceedings against the state for failing to recover damages in a similar agitation way back in 2010. The high court has directed this government to respond by April 1
By Vipin Pubby
The recent agitation in Haryana over reservation in government jobs for Jats shook up one of the most progressive states, led to unprecedented violence over five days and was finally controlled by the army. The Haryana government had to bow down to accepting the demand of the Jat community to be included in the 27 percent quota reserved for Other Backward Classes (OBC).
The agitation led to the death of at least 30 persons, including half-a-dozen non-Jats who were killed in clashes and injured over 200 people. The exact loss due to arson and damage to private and public property is yet to be calculated but estimates range from Rs 30,000 crore to Rs 50,000 crore. The higher figure has been estimated by Assocham, an industry organization. The loss includes burning of government buses, damage to bridges, uprooting of parts of the national highway running through Haryana, torching of private vehicles and burning and looting of malls, showrooms, shops, government buildings and private residences.
The agitation also led to the cancellation of over 1,000 trains and diversion of many others as the protestors damaged railway tracks and signaling systems. Lakhs of passengers, including women and children, were put to inconvenience and countless man hours were lost. There were also news reports of rape and molestation of some commuters but there is no formal complaint. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has taken cognizance of the reports and has issued a notice to the state government, which has formed a Special Investigative Team (SIT) to check the veracity of the reports.
Even as losses caused by the agitation are being calculated, an old Public Interest Litigation (PIL) pertaining to the damage caused by another Jat agitation in 2010 came up for hearing before the High Court on March 1. The petitioner, Anti-Corruption Federation of India, had sought contempt of court proceedings against officials for their alleged failure in taking strict action against those involved in damaging public and private properties during the agitation in 2010.
The petitioner argued that the Haryana government had failed to perform its “raj dharma” which had resulted in the violence in 2010. It had sought directions to the state and other respondents “to appoint claim commissioner to assess the loss and recover it from the culprits…”
The High Court had asked Haryana to abide by the Supreme Court directions “in Destruction of Public and Private Property’s case for taking preventive measures and providing teeth to the inquiry/investigation as per the recommendations made by the KT Thomas Committee and FS Nariman Committee with regard to assessment of loss/damages caused to the public/private properties”.
The petitioner, now seeking contempt proceedings, stated that the High Court had directed the state government on January 11, 2013, to recover the damages caused by Jat protestors in 2010. The Court had directed the state machinery to identify the rioters with the help of CCTV footage, clips from the electronic media and other media reports. The petitioner said that even three years after the court’s direction, the state had failed to recover the damages and sought directions to “initiate contempt of court proceedings against state government officials for willful disobedience of the court directions”. It also pointed out that not a single person involved in the 2010 riots had been convicted. “In no case the state tried to prosecute any of the accused who was part of rioting, looting and killing,” it said.
After hearing the contempt petition, the court issued a notice to Haryana’s chief secretary and director-general of police for alleged failure in taking strict action against those involved in rioting and damaging properties during the 2010 Jat agitation. They have been asked to respond by April 1.
The Punjab government had taken an initiative in 2014 by passing a bill called the Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property Bill, 2014, which provided prosecution and punishment to those damaging public property. The bill was passed amidst objections by the opposition and trade unions who had termed it as a “black act” seeking to curb the right to protest. As the Bill had sought to replace the central Act of 1984, it was sent to the President for approval.
The Bill provided that anybody found guilty of damaging public/private property by fire or explosives would be punished with a term not less than a year which may extend to two years and a fine of Rs 3 lakh. Besides, it provided that the guilty will also have to pay for the loss caused to the property and the amount recovered by attaching the property of the accused. The legislation also provided for the offence to be made non-bailable.
However, after it received the presidential nod last year, the Punjab government developed cold feet in implementing it, with the chief minister’s office sitting over the draft notification for more than six months now. Evidently, it doesn’t want to take up the issue with the assembly elections due in February 2017.
It is obvious that rioters lack any fear when they target public and private properties and put common people to untold inconvenience and hardships.
Representatives of Jat organizations which had led the agitation remain unrepentant and unperturbed. General secretary of the All India Jat Mahasabha (AIJMS) Yudhvir Singh, while addressing the media at Chandigarh Press Club said: “Blocking highways and railway tracks to press for our demand is a right under a democratic set up and we did nothing wrong by doing so.” He went on to justify the actions by saying that it was not the first time that highways had been blocked in the country.
It is high time the courts stepped in to force governments to enact and enforce laws to safeguard the rights of ordinary citizens. Otherwise, lumpen elements would continue to hold citizens to ransom.
(This article features in India Legal March 31 issue)