25 MARCH 2016
Distorted discourse in Assam
Over 19.8 million voters in Assam are eligible to exercise their franchise in the two-phase polls on April 4 and April 11 to elect its 126-seat Assembly. The Assam election assumes importance this time round because of two interlinked reasons. Arguably, it is the only one among the clutch of States going to the polls where the Bharatiya Janata Party, a marginal player in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has a realistic chance of grabbing power. The verdict in the State will be a barometer of the extent to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been able to retain his appeal. It propelled him to power at the Centre in 2014 and helped the party pick up an unprecedented seven out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam, but the Assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar thereafter put the brakes on the BJP’s momentum. As with Delhi and Bihar, where Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar went into the campaign as strong chief ministerial candidates, the BJP is up against a formidable local leader, the three-time Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress. Mr. Gogoi has striven hard to convert this into a ‘CM versus PM’ face-off, but the BJP announced Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial nominee as early as in January. Nonetheless, the Modi factor will be crucial for the BJP in Assam because the scale and depth of the party organisation in the State are not commensurate with its Lok Sabha harvest. Alliances with regional parties such as the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front have served to fill some gaps, rendering the election a three-way contest between the BJP-led front, the Congress, and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).
While national issues, including the ongoing debate over nationalism, have found a resonance in the campaign, local issues are paramount. The nature of electoral democracy has, however, distorted the State-level issues at play. The achievements or otherwise of 15 years of uninterrupted Congress rule in a State that brings up the rear on most human development indices find marginal mention. What is centre-staged is the insider-outsider binary, with the BJP-led alliance projecting itself as a grouping of ‘sons of the soil’ pitted against an evasive Congress, and an AIUDF that seeks to protect the interests of ‘illegal Bangladeshis’. Such rhetoric not only glosses over the nuanced reality of migration in Assam but also threatens to sharpen the religious lines in a State where over 34 per cent of the population is Muslim. Having largely left its troubled days of separatist and ethnic militancy behind over the course of Mr. Gogoi’s terms in office, the State cannot be allowed to be cleaved along ethno-religious lines for political gains. As campaigning reaches fever pitch, all parties ought to steer the discourse back to weightier issues of development and social harmony, instead of attempting to cobble up numbers based on ethnic and religious identities.
Towards a law for Good Samaritans
The fear of getting embroiled in a police investigation and being subjected to the rigours of legal procedure often deters bystanders from getting involved in the rescue of accident victims. The Karnataka government’s decision to frame a ‘Good Samaritan law’ as part of an effort to encourage people to offer assistance without the fear of any criminal or civil liability, is a step in the right direction. The governments of other States and Union Territories such as Rajasthan and Delhi are also in the process of drafting similar Bills. In the absence of national legislation on the subject, in October 2014 the Supreme Court directed the Union government to frame guidelines for the protection of ‘Good Samaritans’, or helpful bystanders, and a Standard Operating Procedure to make them work. The Union Road Transport Ministry notified the guidelines in May 2015, and followed it up with a Standard Operating Procedure in January 2016. The crux of the guidelines is that no bystander rushing to the rescue of an accident victim should be subject to civil or criminal liability and/or be forced to be a witness. Any disclosure of personal information or offer to be a witness, in the event of the Good Samaritan also being an eyewitness to an accident, ought to be voluntary. Further, the examination of such a volunteer as a witness shall be done only on a single occasion and without harassment or intimidation. State governments may also institute a system of reward and compensation to encourage more bystanders to be Good Samaritans, and initiate action against officials or police personnel violating these guidelines.
The SaveLife Foundation, a voluntary organisation that moved the Supreme Court in 2012 and obtained an interim order on the need to frame guidelines to protect the interests of Good Samaritans, has been campaigning for a comprehensive law. The court has reserved judgment on giving directions to the Union government and the States until a law is in place. The question then arises whether a Central law or State-specific laws will adequately meet the purpose of Good Samaritan protection. A private member’s Bill is pending in Parliament, and SaveLife has also submitted a draft. As the matter concerns the police, hospitals and road transport officials, besides the magistracy, it may be more effective if the State governments frame their own Acts. The need for statutory backing to guidelines and operational procedures is quite obvious. Studies have shown that a large majority of citizens are deterred from responding to an accident victim’s distress for fear of getting into legal tangles. Some countries have Good Samaritan laws that do not impose any positive obligation on bystanders but afford protection to acts done in good faith by volunteers in an emergency without looking for recognition or reward. For a country that saw over 1,41,000 fatalities on its roads in 2014, India must do everything possible to encourage more citizens to get involved in the rescue of accident victims, especially during the ‘golden hour’ that can make the difference between life and death.