First Person | Rule of the Khaki

When security overrules governance, calls for justice will have to be silenced

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

It is official now. The governments in India, whether the Union or the respective states, seriously lack imagination and creative thinking to deal with the multiple mutinies that afflict the country. Since the State itself does such a wonderful job of botching things up and sowing seeds for future mutinies, our friendly neighbours can rest easy and not bother about bleeding us with thousand cuts. We’ll do it ourselves, thank you.

The most recent evidence of unimaginative decision-making has been the case of Dr Binayak Sen who has been sentenced to life-imprisonment on charges of sedition, or waging a war against the country. As the members of the appalled civil society, human rights activists, lawyers, retired judges and journalists raised the banner of protest against this outrageous judgement by a sessions court in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, one had hoped that there would be some response or assurance from either the state government in Chhattisgarh or the Union government in Delhi that the matter would be looked into afresh and Dr Sen would not be allowed to languish in prison in this weather. In Dr Sen’s defence, contemporary historian, Ramachandra Guha wrote, ‘doctor-activist Binayak Sen’s conviction happened in a court subject to intimidation by a state government run by paranoid politicians.’

I would have qualified paranoia as fed by the state police, but anyway, after all these encomiums, I was certain that the Chhattisgarh government would break its silence. And break it did, the silence. It has issued television advertisements on its war on Naxalism. In the ad — I saw one during the primetime news on an English news-channel — animated characters flock to the centre stage calling everyone else to join hands with them in waging a war against the Naxals. The advertisement ends with the tagline describing Chhattisgarh government as being sensitive to the people. See, the imaginative thinking. The moment the government is criticised for its ill-conceived actions or for the absence of action when required, it immediately goes in an election mode. Instead of addressing the issues at hand or answering the well-founded doubts, it starts advertising its greatness. And Chhattisgarh government is a pro at this. When the purported Operation Green Hunt was underway, it booked advertisements in national newspapers criticising the Naxals and highlighting all the good work that it has been doing for the uplift of the people. Is the State in control or are Naxals running the government in the state?

Several articles and comments have appeared and would have appeared in defence of Dr Sen pointing out glaring loopholes in the prosecution’s case by the time this article comes out. I do not want to repeat all that. In any case, the reality that Dr Sen is a humanist who has been doing tremendous work among the most deprived sections of India will not change by what one says. I want to use Dr Sen’s incarceration as an excuse to raise a bigger issue.

Why is it that 60 years after Independence, two parallel Indias continue to grow in different directions? Why is it that a large population of this country, both on the periphery (Northeast and Kashmir) and in the heartland (Naxal-dominated) remains disaffected and disenchanted by the big Indian democratic-development dream and refuse to be a part of it? Why is it that despite indefinitely enforcing fundamental rights-suspending laws, such as the Armed Forces Specials Power Act, Disturbed Areas Act and so on in various states and regions of India, the government has yet not been able to either win over the disaffected people or bring law and order situation under control long enough to suspend these laws? Does it not mean that all along the policies which the government had hoped would work have not worked? That it has singularly failed to project to the people (who need to know this more than anyone else) the image of a welfare, caring, just and magnanimous State?

This failure, I believe stems from the fact that India is one of the few countries in the world which lets its security forces — mainly police and Paramilitary and occasionally the army — to influence its internal policies or its relations with its own people. Most countries in the world take military’s advice in determining their relations with other countries. Not in India, because the government and its bureaucracy believe that they know best when it comes to foreign policy. It loathes taking advice from the military, ostensibly because the military lacks the intellectual gravitas required for such advice. But strangely, within the country, in all conflict areas, the government lets the security forces decide the nature of the discourse. Hence, security forces are the biggest face that the people see of the government. Is it any wonder that instead of being won over, they are repulsed by what they see of the government? Rude and rough policemen, frequently threatening people with imprisonment and torture. I am being generous by listing only these as excesses committed by our security forces. I am leaving disappearances, arrests without warrant, extra-judicial killings, fake encounters and extortion out because I would still like to believe that these are exceptions and not norm.

Since the mandate of the security forces is to bring down the level and threat of violence, they view the entire problem from the prism of immediate security. They neither have time, training nor capacity to see beyond the near goal, which is short-term containment of a situation. Winning the population over, reaching justice and governance to the people, initiating participative and sustainable developmental projects is neither the responsibility nor the mandate of the security forces. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, the police have been tasked to finish the Naxal menace. Drawing inspiration from the Andhra police — especially its special task force, the Greyhound, which successfully eliminated the state Naxal leadership through targeted killings and pushed the cadre into Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra — the Chhattisgarh police also wants the state to be declared Naxal-free. It does not matter if they continue to flourish in other states or that the poorest who form the support base continue to languish in near destitution. Riding on the wave of ridding his state of Naxalism, the Raman Singh government can then storm back to power.

With this goal, prosecution of Dr Sen becomes one of the steps towards fulfilment. The biggest dilemma that the security forces face in combating Naxalism, as opposed to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, is the ideological support it enjoys in the society, especially among those who are involved in civil liberties and human rights. Exploitation, denial of rights and neglect are as much a part of the Naxal story as violence is, probably even greater. To justify police action against the Naxals, and sometimes against unarmed tribals, it is necessary to disconnect injustice from Naxalism; hence criminalisation of the Naxal movement. By denouncing Dr Sen, the police and the state government want to silence the voices which continue to make this connection, weigh on the conscience of the State and come in the way of police operations. From the police perspective, one Sen does not matter, as long as his incarceration can discourage others in the state from attributing motives other than criminal to the Naxals. Hence, once Naxalism has been criminalised, all those who have been raising their voices against police excesses committed in the name of fighting Naxalism are criminals as well. How can there be any discussion on this.

This has been the biggest problem with the government’s approach in addressing these issues. Any sensible or imaginative government would have seen in Dr Sen and his ilk an opportunity to improve its image. The day Dr Sen started working with the poor and the down-trodden in Chhattisgarh, the government should have fallen at his feet, begging him to enlarge the scope of his work, offering him all support, financial, material and logistical so that through him and his group of workers, development projects, educational institutions, health centres etc could be built in the remote areas. Instead of the khaki-clad, abusive policeman, people would have seen the benign, soft-spoken Binayak Sen as the face of the government. There are several Binayak Sen’s all over the country, working tirelessly without motive among the impoverished people. A considerate, thoughtful government would help these people help others, carry out the work it should do but cannot because of the fat, corrupt and arrogant bureaucracy. A constant refrain of the various governments grappling with Naxalism is that they are unable to execute developmental projects because either the Naxals do not allow these projects to start or the PWD engineers don’t wish to go to such remote places for the fear of their lives. People like Dr Sen can help resolve this, or at least try resolving this.

But of course, this is wishful thinking. Such things cannot happen in India where the government cannot even interact with the people without the cover of the security forces or the layers of bureaucracy. Hence, the mutinies will continue to mutate and more and more Indians would be governed by the security forces. A coup, after all.


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