AHMEDABAD: A movement to generate legal awareness and create leadership among the minorities and other marginalised sections of society is underway in the districts of Gujarat that have been theatres of caste and communal violence in the recent past. The objective is to empower people from these communities to seek justice in the face of events like wrongful detention, the registration of false cases, or the law enforcement agencies doing the paperwork in such a way that the matter concludes in a compromise.

Activists involved in the exercise point out that over the last couple of years the initiative has been introduced among the groups of youth belonging to the religious minorities, Dalits, and Tribals and De-notified Tribes in the districts of Kheda, Anand, Ahmedabad, Himmatnagar, Panchmahals, Modasa and Gandhinagar.

“Since we have a good rapport with the community members because of other social initiatives taken up by us, we are able to identify youngsters to be trained as paralegal workers. The condition is such that when we ask them whose rule it is in the country or various states, the reply is Bharatiya Janata Party or Congress or any other party. Ideally they should be saying that it is the rule of law in the country,” says Hozefa Ujjaini of the organisation Buniyad which is a partner in the initiative.

“We are training these youngsters on aspects of First Information Report or FIR registration, trial in court, filing of chargesheet, and evidence. Our particular emphasis is on disseminating knowledge on the rights of the accused. This is the goal of the first phase of the project.

“Once we are through with this, we plan to give it a practical shape by organising visits by the groups to police stations, to see for themselves how the police functions, and also get police officials who deal with the public to interact with them on issues relating to FIR registrations and the rights of the accused.

“Meanwhile there is a team of lawyers telling them about the intricacies of trial, filing of chargesheets and evidence. The final phase would be a small residential training of a couple of days. We are right now in the process of implementing the first phase,” Ujjaini added.

Advocate Shamshad Pathan of the Alpsankhyak Adhikar Manch (Minority Rights Platform) told this reporter, “Sporadic rioting has continued to take place in Gujarat. This has both the caste and communal backdrop. It has been our experience right from the 2002 riots that often the FIRs were not registered in a genuine manner, and since the victims did not have any knowledge of law, the matters went in the favour of the accused.

“Very often the FIRs registered were half baked, with the officials skipping key aspects of the cases, and once again the victims were left helpless in the end.”

Pathan remarked how “The most dangerous instances have been those where instead of booking the perpetrators of the violence, the authorities instead registered cross-cases, and then got down to working out a ‘compromise’. While this did result in the ceasing of violence and buying of peace, the victim only got a fragile peace for himself or herself, but not justice.

“In the process, the petty politicians achieve their goal of polarisation on caste or communal lines, while the common man is left high and dry. There are many such instances.”

Activists underline that in the majority of cases it is people from marginalised castes, religions or communities who are picked up and booked. Despite being innocent they have to undergo ordeals just because they are not aware of legal procedures, and above all because they do not know about the rights of the accused while in custody.

They point out that this exercise was started by certain individuals and organisations in the state after 2002, but had lost steam soon after.

“This was primarily due to fear setting in. This is why we are looking at training youngsters in groups and not as individuals. Reluctance and fear are still some of the major challenges we are facing, but this strategy of training groups has been encouraging. The advantage is that while an individual can be targeted, it is difficult to target groups,” Ujjaini points out.

Pathan points to the larger objective of the exercise: to develop social and political leadership among these communities. “The social integrity that has been lost has to be brought back. Participants have very interesting queries about the fallout of various cases like the Unnao rape case. They are keen to know where the law is being misread and not implemented in the manner it should be.

“It needs to be kept in mind that a very large number of the people are not even aware of their fundamental rights and duties. It is from this level that they have to be told about things. They have no idea how the system works, and how knowing even the basics can take them far ahead.”

Pathan further told The Citizen, “We aim to develop the youth towards political leadership, and we want them to start off at the local level by contesting and winning local body elections. Our experience has been that things have changed in a positive manner wherever there have been multiple political forces emerging outside the ambit of the two key players, the BJP and the Congress. The change that has just now been witnessed in Maharashtra has also been felt in Delhi, and to some extent in Haryana recently.”

Ujjaini disclosed that another important aspect is to increase the participation of women in the initiative. “Right now the participation of girls is not beyond 10% at best. But we are devising a strategy to draw more and more of them into the exercise as they are equal stakeholders in society, and can be the leaders on certain issues,” he said.