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History Matters

india Updated: May 26, 2008 23:16 IST
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In the spring of 1990, a great Indian patriot, the liberal jurist V. M. Tarkunde, led a team of independent citizens on a study tour of the Kashmir Valley. Many cases of police and Army excesses were reported to them: beatings (sometimes of children), torture (of men innocent of any crime), extra-judicial (or ‘encounter’) killings, and the violation of women. “It is not possible to list all the cases which were brought to our notice”, commented Tarkunde’s team.

“But the broad pattern is clear. The militants stage stray incidents and the security forces retaliate. In this process large numbers of innocent people get manhandled, beaten up, molested and killed. In some cases the victims were caught in [the] cross-fire and in many more cases they were totally uninvolved and there was no crossfiring. This tends to alienate people further.”

Tarkunde’s report was published in the early stages of a civil conflict that has now claimed at least 50, 000 lives. Reading it today, one is struck by the parallels between the situation in Kashmir, c. 1990, and the situation in Chhattisgarh, c. 2007-08. In both places, an insurgent movement has provoked an excessive response by the Indian State, which has led to the loss of very many innocent lives, the intimidation and arrest of bystanders and intellectuals, the suppression of human rights, and, through all this, to an undermining of India’s claim to be the world’s largest democracy.

The insurgency in Kashmir asked for an independent homeland for the Valley — it was, depending on your vantage point, either ‘nationalist’ or ‘secessionist’. The insurgency in Chhattisgarh aims at the construction of a one-party Communist state in India — its supporters would see it as ‘revolutionary’, its opponents (among whom this writer is certainly one) as ‘extremist’ and ‘anti-democratic’. However, both movements have drawn nourishment from a deep sense of discontent among the local population. Had New Delhi not routinely fixed elections and promoted corrupt regimes in Kashmir, the insurgency would have been still-born. Had central and state governments not treated adivasis as worse than sub-human, by denying them access to education and health care while at the same time taking away their lands and forests for the benefit of the urban-industrial economy, the Naxalite movement would never have got off the ground.

The Kashmiris have been denied autonomy and dignity; the adivasis of interior Chhattisgarh victimised and brutalised. Without this sorry history of abuse, we would not have had a jehad in the one place, or a Naxalite insurgency in the other. That said, no democrat can defend the methods used by either movement. The Indian Constitution, and the heritage of the Indian freedom struggle, demands that class or ethnic or linguistic disputes be settled through non-violent means. It does not encourage the use of arms to settle civil conflicts; and nor should we.

The modern histories of Kashmir and Chhattisgarh have followed a similar trajectory. First, neglect and exploitation; then, violent rebellion and protest; finally, a freeranging use of state power in suppressing this rebellion and protest. The Kashmir story is well known; so let me focus now on the situation in Chhattisgarh. Here, in one district alone, Dantewara, there are close to 10,000 armed men paid by the state to maintain law and order. These owe their institutional allegiance variously to the State Police, the Central Reserve Police Force, and other paramilitary bodies such as the Naga Battalions.

Two summers ago, I went with some colleagues to study the conflict in Dantewara. We found an atmosphere of fear and terror pervading the district. Some of the fear was engendered by the Naxalites; some, by the police and paramilitary. But by far the worst culprit was a vigilante group promoted, funded, and supported by the state government, that went by the name of the Salwa Judum. This consisted of bands of young men, armed with rifles and given carte blanche by the authorities to roam around the countryside. This they did, to brutal effect. Homes were looted and burnt, animals stolen or slaughtered, and women abused. Often, the Salwa Judum were accompanied and aided by the paramilitary.

I continue to get reports from Dantewara, and these continue to make painful reading. (An SMS I received recently carries the information that a woman and baby girl have been murdered by the CRPF.) With the Supreme Court are many petitions signed by villagers who have been at the receiving end of state-sponsored terror. The residents of Korcholi village write: “The frightened villagers of Gangaloor, Cherpal and Bijapur, seeing the Salwa Judum, have fled into [the] forests. The Salwa Judum burns the food stock, houses and clothes. They also break the cooking utensils. Raping women, slitting people’s throat to kill, killing people by drowning them in water, robbing them etc. are the main activities of the Salwa Judum leaders. Why is this happening in our country, why is this happening in Chhattisgarh? Why has the Chhattisgarh administration been running this? Has our Chief Minister been elected only for this?”

In some ways, the behaviour of the Indian State has been far worse in Chhattisgarh than in Kashmir. For one thing, there is no provocation here from a foreign country. This, and the distance from Delhi, may also be why the Central Government and the national media have tended to ignore or underplay the horrible crimes being committed in Chhattisgarh in the name of fighting extremism.

I come, finally, to the last parallel between the two places — the intimidation and silencing of independent voices. The Director-General of Police in Chhattisgarh has recently called me a ‘psychological dupe’ of the Naxalites. This will certainly be news to the Naxalites! I detest them and their methods, but I deplore, too, the outsourcing of law and order to a bunch of untrained goons, and the anarchy and disorder that has resulted. The methods used by the Chhattisgarh government, and especially of the Salwa Judum movement they have promoted and funded, are as antithetical to the Indian Constitution as are the methods of the Naxalites.

However, had I lived in Bhilai and not in Bangalore, I might have not have been free to say as much. For it is in the former town that the Chhattisgarh Government has recently arrested the independent film-maker Ajay T. G. I know Ajay, and can attest, as a mutual friend puts it, that “for all forms of violence he has a deep and abiding distaste.”

If Ajay T. G. is a Naxalite, then Justice V. M. Tarkunde was a member of al-Qaeda. Ajay is, however, a sensitive and compassionate soul, who runs a school for children from poor families, and has made moving films on social issues. He is also an office-bearer of the state unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, which is very likely why the Chhattisgarh Government has put him in jail. For the PUCL has, rightly and bravely, been critical of the regime of terror and intimidation unleashed by the State administration in Dantewara.

The victimisation of Ajay T. G. brings to mind the not dissimilar treatment, back in 2002-03, of the Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani. Jailed on false charges, after a brave and dogged fight to clear his name he was finally released. A journalist who followed that case closely writes that ‘Iftikhar is a gentle, modest man who has put up with great pain and humiliation and come through a terrible ordeal with his dignity and honour intact.’ I hope that we can, one day soon, come to say the same about Ajay T. G.

The treatment of innocent bystanders in Kashmir over a 15-year period remains a dark blot on Indian democracy. Now, the vengeful attitude of the authorities in Chhattisgarh threatens to make that blot even darker.

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and author of India After Gandhi.

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