In the corridors of North Block, the shadow of Sardar Patel, India’s first home minister, looms large. Every person who has since occupied the office is constantly reminded of the Iron Man of India: a life-size portrait of the Sardar stares down at them. It’s a burden which has weighed heavily on his successors, which is perhaps why the country’s roll call of home ministers is littered with notable failures.
There was SB Chavan who fiddled while the Babri Masjid was brought down; Brahmanand Reddy who silently acquiesced in the Emergency; Buta Singh, whose act in bowing his head at the feet of VHP mentor Deoraha Baba was a new low in Indian politics; Charan Singh who was constantly plotting on how to become prime minister; Indrajit Gupta, who like a good leftie spent more time on pay commission hikes than on fighting militancy; and, of course, the serial dresser Shivraj Patil who changed his wardrobe every time there was a terror attack. Even L.K. Advani, who claimed to be inspired by the Sardar, was a rather rusted home minister in the end, his rhetoric on Dawood Ibrahim and the ISI hardly being matched by concrete action on the ground.
Enter P. Chidambaram. A little less than a year ago when PC took over, it was the worst of times. The 26/11 terror attacks had shaken the security establishment, the state had been exposed as effete and inept. The home ministry had been pushed into bureaucratic irrelevance, one reason perhaps why even Chidambaram was self-confessedly reluctant to take up the job.
And yet, 11 months into office, PC is poised to be recognised as perhaps the toughest home minister the country has had, if not since Patel, then certainly in the last three decades. In a sense, PC’s no nonsense persona — his critics term it as arrogance — is ideally suited for the ministry that needs a tough talking jailorsaab at the helm. As finance minister, PC’s style of functioning appeared at times ill-suited to the demands of coalition politics. But in the home ministry, the combativeness has been rewarding.
Take for example the recent conference of directors-general of police: PC used the opportunity to lambast states for treating policemen as ‘political footballs’. Similarly, PC’s repeated questioning of Pakistan’s blatant attempt to protect Lashkar boss Hafiz Saeed may yield little, but at least it sends out a strong signal that New Delhi isn’t a wimpish state which will allow Islamabad to win the propaganda war once again.
But there is another, more complex challenge that faces PC: tackling the Naxal menace. Unlike Pak-based terrorism where the enemy is clear, the Maoists cannot be seen in black and white. Yes, those who behead police constables, who mine roads and blast bridges must be seen as armed militias who have to be either disarmed or eliminated. But should every armed tribal be seen as an ‘enemy of the state’ who must be shot dead?
In a recent speech, PC had warned against romanticising Naxalism: “If the Naxalites accuse elected governments of capitalism, land grabbing, exploiting and displacing tribal people, what prevents them from winning power through elections and reversing current policies? We have not heard a logical answer to this question, not from naxalites, not from left-leaning intellectuals, and certainly not from human rights groups that plead the naxalite cause but ignore the violence unleashed by Naxalites on innocent men, women and children. Why are the human rights groups silent?”
It’s a question that has enraged human rights groups who believe that it’s not just their ideology, but their patriotism that is being challenged. It’s equally the kind of remarks that have drawn applause from a vocal, middle-class constituency driven by the ‘enough is enough’ slogan that echoed after 26/11. In the process, the debate over how to tackle Naxalism is being polarised into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ binary conflict that offers no solution. Yes, we must condemn the cult of violence spawned by Naxalism in the strongest terms. But does that mean we turn a blind eye to the random violence of our own forces? Francis Induwar’s killing must make the headlines and his family must get justice. But what of Dudhi Muye, 70, who was murdered after her breasts were cut off in a security ‘operation’ in Dantewada on September 17? Does her family too not deserve justice?
If the cycle of violence is to end, then Naxals who murder in cold blood must be dealt with as murderers but equally security forces who believe they have a unbridled licence to kill cannot be let off under the guise of inevitable ‘collateral damage’. Who better than a home minister who started life as a trade union activist and then became a senior lawyer to understand the primacy of the rule of law and justice?
Postscript: In the last month, both Chidambaram and Arundhati Roy have been interviewed separately in our TV studios. Next time, they should consider coming together in the spirit of encouraging a meaningful dialogue as the way forward.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief , IBN Network