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Volume 24 - Issue 06 :: Mar. 24-Apr. 06, 2007
Shape of things to come?
The tragic incidents at Nandigram and Rani Bodli may send out the message that show of force is capable of disrupting economic progress in the country.
Naxalites at a training camp in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. A file picture.
THE events of the past few weeks in Chhattisgarh and West Bengal and the public utterances of important functionaries such as the Governor of West Bengal and two Judges of the Supreme Court should disturb every one of us in the country. It is hardly possible to reconcile ourselves to the loss of more than 60 precious lives in the two States, however insensitive we may have become over the years. The question is - how long are we going to be as mute as we are now?
I appreciate the fact that Rani Bodli (in the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh) and Nandigram (West Bengal) may not represent what is happening in the rest of India. Many of us in Chennai or Kolkata, and to an extent in Mumbai,may be still untouched by the kind of violence that one saw in the two places. Still, the tragic incidents there could be more than symbols of violence and may actually disseminate the message that show of force is capable of effectively disrupting economic progress in the country. I am also concerned that Rani Bodli and Nandigram will send the wrong signal across the world to investors who are itching to set up shop in India. Imagine the impact on our economy if a few more incidents like these take place in quick succession and foreign entrepreneurs fight shy of coming to us.
Those queering the pitch in Nandigram, not all of whom are exactly pro-poor, seem to turn a blind eye to this distinct possibility only because they want to embarrass Buddhababu.
The continued dominance of naxalites/Maoists right from the border with Nepal down to the villages in Andhra Pradesh baffles every expert in law and order and the intelligence agencies. The outlaws seem to be able to strike at ease, as they did on March 15 when they killed more than 50 policemen, who included some Special Police Officers who were tribal youths enlisted for anti-naxalite operations, at the Rani Bodli police outpost in Bastar . What is most disconcerting is that every time they strike, the intruders are able to strengthen their stock of arms and ammunition by plundering the police armoury. More distressing is that Rani Bodli demonstrated the poor preparedness of the police to protect themselves from such surprise attacks.
There are so many theories advanced by scholars and administrators to explain naxalite violence. Of course, chief of these is the appalling poverty that stalks the belt in Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, which is under repeated attack.
While economic deprivation alone cannot account for the desperation of the aggressors, it is no doubt a factor that has to be fused into any strategy that aims at countering naxalites. What is most galling is the fact that victims of violence are not the rich. They are the poorest of inhabitants, who do not have any earthly possessions. It is this characteristic of the situation that has to be exploited in order to build resistance to the senseless groups who indulge in mindless violence. Organising civil defence with the help of volunteers who are directly affected by insurgency is a traditional mechanics. Its success depends on a variety of factors, most important of which is the credibility of the administration at the grassroots. But then, credibility is a commodity that is scarce in most States because of the acute corruption, casteism and low motivation of government staff. Government partnership with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is the ideal solution to this problem of putting our best foot forward to tackle naxalite atrocities. The unfortunate government scepticism towards NGOs negatives all that can possibly be done in unison to outwit the naxalite.
Supercop K.P.S. Gill, who is advising the Chhattisgarh government, screams for more manpower. While his demand cannot be ignored, experience tells us that mere numbers will not help to handle terrorism. An honest government, a motivated civil service and a corps of volunteers from the affected population is the best bet to quell any group that is determined to destroy civil society. The success of this combine is not guaranteed. It, however, paves the way for a system that will in course of time help to strike at the roots of those who believe only in the gun.
Nandigram is an entirely different kettle of fish. While naxalites claim to hit at poverty using the gun and through other highly objectionable methods, for the same objective, a democratically-elected government in West Bengal treads a path that has found favour with many developing nations. Providing extra incentives to produce specified goods in a well-defined geographic region is an accepted norm these days, and the experiment has been more than successful. Here is a State government that has been agreeably pragmatic in embracing the Special Economic Zone path to improve the lot of an impoverished population, and there are many who want to reverse the process. The only thing debatable here is whether the local administration did all that was within its means to prepare the local population for the process of alienating the land required for the project - of course with a package of receiving lawful compensation. The police were sent in when protests threatened to engulf the project itself. Facts from this stage onwards become garbled. The official tally puts the death toll from police firing at 14, although many are reported missing. There is a lot of fault-finding and acrimony between the Marxists and a motley group pitted against them.
There are two issues here that bother me. What should have been a clinical business decision has got mired in politics. This is distressing beyond limits at a time when, excluding China, we are leading the rest of the developing world. More important, what do the police do when they are caught in the crossfire? No right-thinking policeman wants to alienate the local people. At the same time, he cannot defy a lawfully elected government which orders it to intervene in a difficult situation.
Talking of Nandigram, I am most impressed by the moralistic stand taken by Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi. His words soon after the tragedy were touching. He asked: "Was this spilling of human blood not avoidable?" This statement summed up his anguish. Mind you, it was not indignation. He went on to say: "I expect the government to do what it thinks necessary to mitigate the effects of this bitter March 14, and to do it visibly and fast." I am not on the facts of what happened in Nandigram. I am more on the courage displayed by him to speak out his mind, that too in a language which honours the memory of his revered grandfather. I would expect more Governors to follow this example of intervening in a matter of public importance even at the risk of being slightly out of step with the Executive.
I have never missed an opportunity to vent my indignation at the way corruption has become a way of life in our country. I have chosen to be extremely restrained in language while giving expression to my desperation. But I am slowly losing patience with such dignity. I am happy that a Supreme Court Judge refuses to be so bound by the dictates of office in handling an issue like corruption. While delivering the judgment in an appeal filed by a government functionary convicted for corruption, Justice Markendaya Singh, always known for his candour, recently said that the accused who stood before him and the likes of him deserved to be hung by the nearest lamp-post if the law permitted it. What colourful language and what impact it has on the common man harassed by the petty official and an even pettier Minister who evaluates each file coming to him by the money he can make out of it rather than by the amount of public good he can do. Here again I am not on what the Judge said, but the impact of what he said on perceptions abroad about India and its civil service.
Finally, a more dramatic moment in the Supreme Court. Justice A.R. Lakshmanan openly told the Court on March 16 that he had received a facsimile message at his home imputing motives to him on the way he dealt with a matter before him. Extremely pained by this, he refused to handle it any further. There could be differences of opinion as to whether he should have reacted so. He probably did what he thought was in his best interest and in order to uphold his personal dignity and that of his office. What is debatable, however, is whether the matter should have rested there. Should not an inquiry have been held through the Central Bureau of Investigation to trace the contemnor and punish him, irrespective of whether it is possible to trace him at all? Will not such a step at least partially ensure that, in future, no one in his right mind dare defame an honourable Judge of the highest court in the land? I would have been happy if the issue took such a turn instead of being closed abruptly. I am wondering whether the mischief monger has succeeded in what he wanted to achieve by preventing the particular Judge from proceeding with the case. Can this become a routine tactic to frustrate Judges who have a reputation to zealously guard? I hope it will not.
On the whole, a significant fortnight has gone by, one full of events that raised fundamental questions on the state of the nation. There are interesting issues pertaining to the role of the Governor, the police and the Supreme Court, which deserve an honest and progressive debate. Such a debate will enhance the credibility of India as a nation that believes in transparency.