Dec 29, 2008

India - Non-state actors and the rule of law

Nandini Sundar

Women wait for their turn to vote in Nagarnar, Bastar. In Konta, Bijapur and Dantewada, no one who was adversely affected by the Salwa Judum was able to vote.

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s December 17 statement in Parliament dissociating the Union Government from ‘non-state actors’ like the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh is a welcome step. Perhaps he realised the incongruity of India blaming Pakistan for supporting ‘non-state actors’ while continuing to defend vigilantes on its own soil. Perhaps it was a consequence of the Supreme Court’s clear strictures against vigilantism, or perhaps it was just a fallout of the Congress’ failure to wrest the State from the Bharatiya Janata Party, showing once again that the party never benefits from being the B team of the BJP. Outsourcing wars to extremists has been a disastrous policy for the United States and Pakistan, both of whom are facing payback time. India must avoid this trap at all costs.

Following the BJP’s re-election in Chhattisgarh, the party and its cheer leaders have treated the result as a vindication for the Salwa Judum. The ‘peaceful’ nature of the movement was demonstrated the day the results came, when ‘Special Civilian Officers’ (SPOs) ‘celebrated’ by burning grain stores in Regadgatta village in Konta tahsil. That violence is an inherent part of the movement is borne out by the Chhattisgarh government’s October 17 letter to the Bijapur and Dantewada Collectors following the Supreme Court’s earlier strictures.

In its letter, the government says: “Necessary action be ensured for rehabilitation of uninhabited villages, necessary relief money be given in cases of properties damaged by Salwa Judum activists/security forces, besides naxalite violence, after village-wise analysis. Security forces be not allowed to stay in school/ashram buildings.” The police have also been ordered to prepare a list of missing persons and register FIRs on receipt of cognisable offences. Its October letter, then, was a clear admission — even before the elections — of the truth of allegations made by myself, Manish Kunjam and others in two PILs before the Supreme Court and confirmed in a subsequent, court-ordered probe by the National Human Rights Commission. And yet, the Chhattisgarh government and the BJP claimed throughout the election campaign and after that armed vigilantism had been exonerated by the NHRC.

In any case, it is necessary to analyse the Chhattisgarh results more closely before linking the vote to Salwa Judum. The BJP victory is widely attributed to the ‘one rupee/kg rice’ factor, along with free salt, blanket distribution and so on. When the Chief Justice asked during the December 16 hearing on our PIL why the State had done nothing for two months to fulfil its own statements on compensation to the victims of vigilante violence, the Chhattisgarh counsel speciously argued that “the election code of conduct had come into play and [the government] could offer no benefits.”

While the Congress may have tried to match the BJP in competitive populism, it was defeated by internal squabbles. And no amount of bribing, on and off camera, could have made the local Congress leader of the vigilantes, Mahendra Karma, win. For smaller parties like the Communist Party of India, with no prospect of forming the government, giveaways are never an option. Crores are spent on electioneering by major political parties but they never form part of the poll analysis by reporters.

In the three districts affected by the government-inspired violence — Konta, Bijapur and Dantewada — it can safely be said that no one who was adversely affected by the Judum was able to vote. In Bijapur, 70 per cent did not vote, while in Konta nearly 60 per cent did not. In both constituencies, the resettlement camps, which now consist largely of SPOs and their families, voted, quite naturally, for the BJP, the party which has fully justified their excesses.

In Dantewada, which has not had villages displaced, voter turnout was 55 per cent, much of which is accounted for by the urban townships of Bacheli/Kirandul, Dantewada and Geedam. Compared to the average for Chhattisgarh in 2008, which is 70.53 per cent, it is clear that this was not a vote in which the victims of violence had any voice.

Boycott call

The low turnout was due to a variety of factors — the Maoist boycott call being the major reason. It was also because at least one lakh have fled as refugees to Andhra Pradesh, where there was no provision to vote. Despite valiantly trying to enforce the pretence of electoral democracy in the region, the Election Commissioner pointed out that these areas “are totally under the control of the Maoists. On the whole, if I have to compare it with holding elections anywhere else in India, I would say this is tougher than Kashmir or the northeast.” Coupled with declining voter turnout (in 2003 it was 60 per cent for Dantewada, 52.4 per cent for Konta, and 37 per cent for Bijapur), this shows the lie behind the BJP’s claim that its policies have been successful in countering naxalism.

If anything, naxalism has grown and thrived on Salwa Judum. The naxalites have gained more recruits in the last three years than in the last 20. This perhaps explains why the Maoists did not allow villages in the interior to vote, why IAF helicopters were fired upon and EVMs looted. Had these villages voted, it would have been a cakewalk for the CPI, which lost by a mere 879 votes in Konta, the size of one polling booth.

The fact that the Maoists assassinated BJP and Congress leaders generated some sympathy for these parties and cost the CPI — falsely accused of being in league with the naxals — some votes among urban non-tribals. One can only conclude that the Maoists wanted the vigilante-based counterinsurgency to continue, and the BJP to win, so that their struggle would have more misery to feed on, and they would be able to indulge in more mindless violence.

If the Maoists and the Chhattisgarh government are genuinely interested in the welfare of the citizens of Bastar, the path is clear. Despite the NHRC’s attempts to whitewash the violence by using State-sponsored activists as interpreters, taking the SPOs and the police at face value and ignoring the testimony of the relatives of those killed by the Salwa Judum, its report is forced to record the burning of villages by the vigilantes, the complicity of the State police and administration in sponsoring aggressive rallies and the arson and looting that accompanied them; the forcing of villagers into camps; inhibition of movement, extra-judicial killings by SPOs; suspect encounters and non-recording of deaths, and the initial recruitment of minors as SPOs. The Supreme Court has given Chhattisgarh time till January 28 to file an Action Taken Report on compensation and FIRs/enquiries regarding extra-judicial killings.

Salwa Judum excesses

If Mr. Chidambaram is serious, he must ensure that the Chhattisgarh ‘experiment’ is not replicated in Orissa, Manipur and elsewhere. There has to be a clear disclaimer of the Home Ministry’s policies of supporting “local resistance groups” and appointing armed civilians as SPOs to man the frontlines of counter-insurgency campaigns.

Second, he must make sure the Union and State governments recognise the large-scale killings by Salwa Judum, the security forces and the naxalites and begin prosecution proceedings, apart from giving compensation to the relatives of victims, whoever they are, at the same rates. At present, only the relatives of those killed by the Maoists are compensated.

Given the current denials by the Chhattisgarh government and the intransigence of the Maoists, victims will not come forward on their own. There has to be an independent body, preferably a judicial enquiry, which will ensure due recognition to each citizen who has been killed. The Maoists for their part must allow villagers to claim compensation, rebuild the schools they have destroyed and stop their targeted assassinations. The path to peace eventually lies in dialogue and justice; if both parties obstruct this, the future will continue to be bleak.

(The author is Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.)

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