The Supreme Court’s March 31 observations regarding the armed group — Salwa Judum — affect not only Chhattisgarh, where this group operates, but pose questions to major actors across the political spectrum. Admitting two public interest petitions on the matter, Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan asked the respondent, “How can the State give arms to some persons? The State will be abetting in a crime if these private persons kill others.” This observation contains a profound and much-evaded truth about our polity. It also has ramifications for a long-due process of reform in India’s fast-eroding criminal justice system. If Chhattisgarh persists with a strategy that the court has prima facie perceived to be illegal, it will only be following several nasty precedents that point towards the criminalisation of the State.
The Union of India, represented here by the state of Chhattisgarh, has illegally sub-contracted its sovereign control over legitimate force to a private vigilante group which functions with impunity. The Salwa Judum has the backing of the BJP and the Congress and has been accused of committing punitive rapes and killings. The policy of rewarding its cadres for killing Naxalites has encouraged false encounters. This brutal campaign has undermined the legitimacy and reputation, not only of the government of the day, but also of the Indian Union. Chhattisgarh has claimed that the Salwa Judum is a ‘Gandhian campaign’. This is a strange description of men armed with guns, axes, bows and arrows. The National Commission for Women and citizen’s inquiries have concluded that the lawless conduct of the Salwa Judum has led to a spiral of violent retribution, resulting in a civil war among the tribal population. In joint raids carried out by the Salwa Judum and the security forces, suspected ‘Naxalite sympathisers’ (mostly old persons and small children who cannot run away) have been murdered, their houses torched and livestock looted. In several instances, the raids have continued until all the villagers moved into camps. Its atrocities are rarely registered, marking an extension of impunity to an extra-legal force.
Up to January 2007, 4,048 Special Police Officers (SPOs) were appointed under the Chhattisgarh Police Regulations. These Salwa Judum activists are given weapons training by security forces under an official plan to create a paramilitary structure parallel to that of the Naxalites. The SPOs are mostly unemployed tribal youth and minors. The appointment of minors as security personnel is a violation of constitutional clauses (Article 39) that protect the lives and dignity of children; and of the Child Labour Act (1986) that forbids the employment of children in hazardous activities. The government has also violated UN conventions on the rights of children, and thus rendered India vulnerable to international reprimand.
In January 2007, over 47,000 persons were living in so-called relief camps and 644 out of 1,354 villages in Dantewada district were prey to their activities. Thousands have fled to neighbouring states. Clearly, the government sees enforced resettlement as the best means of separating the revolutionaries from their environment. These methods were employed by the British in Malaya and by US forces in Vietnam. But India is a 60-year-old democracy and the people being forced out of their homes are Indian citizens with equal rights under the law. They may work and live where they like and their liberties may not be curtailed or taken away unless by due process of law. They are not criminals and cannot be held responsible for the rise of Naxalism, of which they are the victims, and for which the administration is answerable.
Chhattisgarh has also enacted the Special Public Security Act (2005) that throttles legitimate dissent and other fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 14, 19 and 21. Civil rights activist Binayak Sen has been incarcerated under this Act. Along with its other actions related to the Salwa Judum, this measure violates Article 13, which forbids the State from making any law, ordinance or regulation that ‘takes away or abridges’ the fundamental rights of Indian citizens. The Schedule V, which protects tribal areas, has also been violated. Is the Constitution being undermined by governments tied to industrialists and MNCs?
It is questionable whether draconian laws can be effectively regulated — the semi-permanent status of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the North-east is a glaring case of how emergencies can develop vested interests. We may expect the national security establishment to raise an outcry against the disbanding of the Salwa Judum. From their own standpoint, however, this policy will lead to the perpetuation of violence, stabilise rebellious attitudes and reduce public security. This might be a lucrative proposition for some but its consequence will be to render destitute the poorest sections of the citizenry and drive them to desperation. It will also result in the erosion of the writ of law and the constitution. We should consider whether the emergence of insurgencies with a support base among India’s most-deprived people has something to do with sheer misgovernance. Violent movements gain stature when directed at undemocratic governments.
The Union Home Minister wants special legislation to deal with extremism. Is it not true that our major political parties have indulged in terror-inducing activities in the past? That the process of justice in these cases has been tardy, to say the least? Dare we say that in certain cases, private armed groups and captive mobs have been hired by the state? The protection enjoyed by the Ranvir Sena and the Salwa Judum are examples. So was the vigilante action in Nandigram undertaken by political cadre associated with the West Bengal government. If our rulers believe that such activities will curtail insurgency, they are mistaken. The only way to protect the rule of law is to respect it. Disrespect for law by its guardians has already had disastrous results.
President Pratibha Patil has referred to mob violence as a result of the failure of Indian judicial system. Her Republic Day address spoke of “internal threats from Naxalism and terrorism”, the former feeding upon “sentiments of discontentment in the undeveloped parts of the country”. In Chhattisgarh, this discontent derives from the devastation of livelihoods for the benefit of corporate houses with an eye on mineral-rich tribal lands. The President noted that violent methods “had no place in a democracy”. Surely this applies to all sides? A month later, she advised a seminar on judicial reforms that the rise of mob violence was due to the “failure of the justice delivery system”; and stated that it was time to “collectively introspect on the causes of the ills of judicial administration without being unduly touchy and sensitive to criticism... we need to have in place a judicial machinery which is easily accessible and dispenses affordable and incorruptible justice to the people”. Should not the administration pay attention to these observations by the Head of State? Contrary to the Prime Minister’s assessment, it could be the criminal justice system that is the biggest security threat facing the country.
Dilip Simeon is Senior Research Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.