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July 20, 2011

How not to fight extremism

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July 20, 2011

When it comes to national security matters, India’s higher judiciary intervenes only rarely to remind the executive of its duty to uphold constitutional values. The courts have long been reluctant to tell the army and paramilitary forces to fight separatist insurgencies in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeast with strictly legal methods. Thus, draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – which grant army personnel impunity from prosecution for pre-emptively killing someone who, they suspect, might commit a violent act – continue to operate. Even on the state’s armed police operations against Left-wing extremists, the courts usually adopt a hands-off attitude.
A Supreme Court judgment last week makes a decisive break from such conservative thinking. It directs the government of Chhattisgarh, in central India, to disarm special police officers recruited through the state-sponsored counter-insurgency militia Salwa Judum (Rallying for Peace). It also orders the central government to cease financially supporting SPOs and ask the central bureau of investigation to inquire into Salwa Judum’s recent criminal activities.
Left-wing insurgents, variously called Maoists and Naxalites, control parts of the tribal belt in India’s heartland. Many high functionaries, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, believe the insurgency constitutes the “greatest internal security threat” to India. An unstated presumption is that excesses are bound to happen, but so long as the security forces act in good faith “to defend the nation”, excesses must be condoned. The verdict by Justices B Sudershan Reddy and Surinder Singh Nijjar rejects this reasoning.
The nearly 5,000 SPOs are “barely literate tribal youth ... asked ... to undertake tasks that only members of the official and formal police ought to be undertaking”, including armed raids, military-style interceptions and combat with firearms. The SPOs were encouraged to loot and burn 600

villages suspected to have Maoist sympathisers, and rape women and kill indiscriminately. The strategy was to divide Chhattisgarh’s once-cohesive, virtually classless and egalitarian Gond tribal society – especially in Bastar, which boasts of a unique Adivasi civilisation. Unleashing limitless state violence to terrify innocent civilians would “teach the Naxalites a lesson”.
The SPOs’ Changiz Khan-style violence – with the complicity and concurrence of the Indian state – forced over one lakh Adivasis into temporary “relief” camps or to flee to Andhra Pradesh. Even the camps were periodically attacked, plundered and set on fire. Instead of asking the Chhattisgarh government to desist from using illegal methods to contain the “insurgency”, the centre sustained Salwa Judum by paying 80 percent of its guerrillas’ honorarium. This violated the maxim that “the power of the people vested in any organ of the state, and its agents, can only be used for promotion of constitutional values”.
Chhattisgarh reminds the judges of novelist Joseph Conrad’s depiction of late 19th century Africa in his Heart of Darkness, where colonialists indulged in “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”. The worst darkness is “represented by inhumanity and evil, to which individual human beings are capable of descending, when supreme and unaccounted force is vested ...”.
The state of Chhattisgarh created Salwa Judum because it failed to meet the Naxalite challenge despite deploying 40,000 armed police personnel with extraordinary powers. Maoism took root and grew because the state perpetrates what economist Amit Bhaduri calls “developmental terrorism”, violence against the poor to further the interests of corporate capital.
Between 1951 and 1990, extractive “development” activities uprooted 8.5 million tribals in India; three-fourths were not even rehabilitated in a token fashion. In Chhattisgarh, displacement has since accelerated under the policy of giving capital the cheapest mineral deals. Discontent bred by dispossession, fracturing of Adivasi communities, and the state’s failure to provide minimum services, led to the growth of Naxalism.
The judges hold “neo-liberal economic ideology” the chief culprit for its “false promises of ever-increasing spirals of consumption leading to economic growth”. They criticise the argument that India won’t be able to “compete globally and accumulate the wealth necessary to tackle the seemingly intractable problems of poverty, illiteracy, hunger and squalor” without rapid growth through rapacious exploitation of natural resources. They hold that growth must be just and sustainable. But, in practice, “tax breaks for the rich, and guns for the youngsters amongst poor, so that they keep fighting amongst themselves, seems to be the new mantra ....” The judgment deplores the state government for dehumanising youth from “deprived sections of the population”.
The judgment is emphatic that “the fight against Maoist/Naxalite violence cannot be conducted purely as a mere law-and-order problem .... The primordial problem lies deep within the socio-economic policies pursued by the state on a society that was already endemically, and horrifically, suffering from gross inequalities. Consequently, the fight ... is no less a fight for moral, constitutional and legal authority over the minds and hearts of our people.
“Our constitution provides the gridlines within which the state is to act, both to assert such authority, and also to initiate, nurture and sustain such authority .... To transgress those gridlines is to act unlawfully, imperilling the moral and legal authority of the state and the constitution.”
By exposing untrained SPOs to great risk, which leads to disproportionately high casualties, the government violates “the promise of equality before the law” (Article 14 of the constitution) since it treats unequals as equals, and “the dignity of life” (Article 21). Against the argument that SPOs are “effective” in the fight against Naxalism, the judges hold that legality must prevail over “effectiveness”, and quote an analyst: “If we act lawlessly, we throw away the gains of effective action” against extremism.
The judges are “aghast at the blindness” of the Chhattisgarh government to constitutional limitations “in claiming that anyone who questions the inhumanity ... rampant in many parts of that state ought necessarily to be treated as Maoists, or their sympathisers, and yet in the same breath also claim that it needs ... to perpetrate its policies of ruthless violence”.
The state must meet the challenge of extremism in two ways. It must pursue the “necessary socially, economically and politically remedial policies that lessen social disaffection”. And it should develop well-trained professional law-enforcement forces “that function within the limits of constitutional action”. Chhattisgarh has failed to do either.
The judges deplore the centre’s description of the SPOs as a “force multiplier” without “explaining what is involved in such a concept, nor how ‘force’ is multiplied”. The term is from strategic discourse, which should be abjured in discussion within a civilian framework. The judgment holds that the government is perpetuating “a regime of gross violations of human rights” and pursuing “policies of ruthless violence”.
This indictment should occasion some humble and honest soul-searching on the government’s part. Regrettably, the Chhattisgarh chief minister has chosen to describe Salwa Judum’s methods as “Gandhian” and decided to file a review petition against the verdict. In off-the-record conversations, Chhattisgarh officials viciously attack the judgment and say it ties their hands down in the fight against extremism. They are also trying to subvert its implementation and find ways of keeping Salwa Judum going in some way.
Nothing could be more misguided and sordid. And nothing could better ensure the spread of Naxalism than the state’s mollycoddling of Salwa Judum.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: [email protected]

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