WHILE THE Uttar Pradesh government has issued notices for recovery of damages for destruction of public property during protests against the amended citizenship law, the question of whether Dera Sacha Sauda can be made to pay for damage to property worth Rs 118 crore in Haryana after Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s conviction in a rape case in 2017, is still pending in the absence of a legislation on recovery, and because of a pending court case.
There was large-scale violence in Haryana, particularly Panchkula, after Ram Rahim was convicted in a rape case. In the run-up to the verdict by a special CBI court at Panchkula, hundreds of Dera followers had gathered outside the court complex. As the verdict was pronounced, there was mass violence and destruction to property worth Rs 118 crore as per official estimates. At least 36 people were killed in Haryana in forces’ action.
Since August 2017, Dera property across Punjab and Haryana has remained frozen — sale, transfer, alienation or encumbrance of the properties stayed — on orders of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The legal question of whether damages can be recovered from Dera is pending, was framed by the court in a suo motu case in 2017. In December 2019, a full bench of the HC had fast-tracked the hearing over pending questions of law regarding recovery. The hearings are likely to conclude in the second week of January.
On December 10, the arguments finally began for the first time since 2017 and continued on December 13 and 18. The hearings will resume on January 8. So far, only the amicus curiae has made arguments in the case and the court for the next hearing has asked him to assist it regarding the law for regulating mass gatherings. The court on previous dates has also said it will examine the Haryana government’s role in allowing Dera followers to gather in Panchkula in the run-up to the verdict against the Dera chief.
The Haryana government is yet to make arguments in the case, though it has submitted estimates of damage caused to public and private property. On September 27, 2017, the HC had directed the state to establish a tribunal to look into the claims of damage to properties received from various claimants, but the same has not been done yet due to pendency of the question over liability behind the violence.
The Rs 118 crore figure includes damages to public and private property besides the revenue loss and expenses for providing services including security and stay of paramilitary forces in the state. Punjab had during recent hearings of the case also has raised a claim regarding payment made by it to the Centre for deployment of central forces during the Dera violence. Dera’s counsels in preliminary submissions have contended that liability has to be established on the basis of evidence of whether the Dera management directly asked the followers to cause violence.
What does the law say?
At present, there is no central legislation governing the recovery of damages except for the Supreme Court-issued guidelines of 2009, which the Centre has instructed all state governments to implement in letter and spirit. In October 2018, the Supreme Court had further gone ahead and laid down a procedure for recovery of damages as it hoped that a Bill, regarding the recovery of damages pending since 2015, will be taken to its “logical end in the right earnest”. The law concerning the property damage is Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act (PDPP Act), 1984, but at present, it only has provisions for imprisonment and fine.
The 2015 bill, in addition to the existing law for imprisonment and fine, proposed a fine by court equivalent to the market value of the public property damaged and also establishing guilt of office-bearers of the organisation which calls for a protest leading to destruction of property. The bill never made it to Parliament but the Union government had in October 2018 suggested measures and itself asked for interim directions from the Supreme Court. It said the bill is still under consideration.
In 2007, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognizance of issues related to damage to properties during protests. The bench appointed two committees to look into the matter. The Justice Thomas Committee recommended an amendment to the PDPP Act to hold leaders of the agitating group guilty of abetment. The Nariman committee asked the apex court to “evolve a principle of liability, punitive in nature, on account of vandalism and rioting leading to damage/destruction of property”. The liability should lie with “the actual perpetrators of the crime as well as organisers of the event giving rise to the liability – to be shared as finally determined by the High Court or Supreme Court as the case may be”, the Nariman committee had said.
The recommendations, which were immediately ordered to be made operative, also said liability will be borne by the actual perpetrator as well as the organisers. In each case, the HC is authorised to initiate suo motu action to investigate mass destruction of property and has to appoint a sitting or retired HC judge or a sitting or retired district judge as a claims commissioner to estimate the damages and investigate the liability. The guidelines are operative in absence of a law regarding recovery of damages.
In October 2018, the Supreme Court in the Kodungallur Film Society’s case further ordered that, “a person arrested for either committing or initiating, promoting, instigating or in any way causing to occur any act of violence which results in loss of life or damage to property may be granted conditional bail upon depositing the quantified loss caused due to such violence or furnishing security for such quantified loss”. If the loss is yet to be quantified, the apex court said, the judge hearing the bail application may quantify the amount of tentative damages which will remain subject to final determination by the appropriate authority”.
While the Supreme Court has entrusted the responsibility on high courts and even lower judiciary during bail hearings in its 2009 and 2018 directions, the UP government has issued notices on the basis of an Allahabad High Court ruling of 2010, which states that a competent authority appointed by the government has to decide the claims for compensation and pass order against whom the claim has been filed; the order has to passed after hearing the parties.
The court guidelines are applicable only in the absence of law. Punjab had in 2017 amended its PDPP Act and notified that anyone found guilty of damaging act shall be also liable to make a payment of an amount equivalent to the loss caused to the public or private property as decided by the competent authority. In the erstwhile state of J&K, a proposed amendment to The Jammu and Kashmir PDPP Act was referred to a select committee of the then Assembly on February 10, 2018, following opposition protests against its “draconian” provisions.