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Out of sight, out of mind

The use of vigilante groups, supported and sanctioned by a pliant bureaucracy, to physically defeat an opposing group is evidently the latest fashion in governance, writes Nandini Sundar

india Updated: Nov 20, 2007 22:55 IST

It is hard to decide which is more unappetising — the spectacle of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee declaring that the CPI(M) had paid those against the West Bengal’s industrialisation programme in Nandigram “back in their own coin”, or the BJP and the Congress condemning the violence there while ignoring their own culpability for similar behaviour in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh respectively. The use of vigilante groups or armed cadres, supported and sanctioned by a pliant bureaucracy, to physically defeat an opposing group, rather than relying on legal means and political discussions, is evidently the latest fashion in governance. It is time, we are told, to forget the old expectation that it is the police that is meant to maintain law and order and not gangs of party members.

What happened in Nandigram at the behest of the West Bengal Chief Minister is not very different from the Salwa Judum — ‘peace mission’ — being run jointly by the Congress MLA of Dantewada, Mahendra Karma, and the BJP government of Chhattisgarh. Here armed vigilantes, some of them given official positions as special police officers (SPOs), burn villages, kill people and rape women with impunity on the grounds that they are wresting these areas back from the Naxalites. Officials take orders from party goons. In Dantewada district, a letter from the Chief Secretary carries less weight than the orders of a lumpen Salwa Judum camp leader.

In both cases, the presence of Maoists is used to imply that anything goes; that once an area is declared ‘Naxal affected’, all the normal protections of the rule of law and fundamental rights cease to apply. Government presence in these areas then depends solely on the power of the gun, and the relative superiority of its police and vigilantes over the ‘other side’ that include unarmed civilians.

Yet, the differences between Nandigram and Dantewada are also striking. Even though the scale of Salwa Judum terror is far greater than that being witnessed in Nandigram, it has gone almost entirely unreported. According to the figures provided in a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court, at least 540 persons have been killed by the Salwa Judum and security forces since June 2005, including 33 children and 45 women. This is a small fraction of the killings by the Salwa Judum, most of which have gone unrecorded, and does not include the approximately 550 civilians and police personnel that the Naxalites have killed in escalating retaliatory action for Salwa Judum. At least 2,825 houses have been burnt by the Salwa Judum and at least 99 women have been raped. Approximately, one lakh people — one-eighth the district’s population — has been displaced. Half of them are in government-controlled camps to which they were forcibly evacuated, and the other half are refugees in neighbouring states.

When two lakh people rallied in Jagdalpur on November 5 to protest against the Salwa Judum and land acquisition by the Tatas and Essar for steel plants, there was not even a whisper in the national media. In part, this silence is explained by the natural anti-Leftism of the media, and its warped notion of ‘balance’. As Michael Tomasky pointed out in the American context, “They now bend over backward to demonstrate that they can be ‘tough’ on liberals and ‘fair’ to conservatives.” But the difference also needs to be further explained in terms of the lack of the appropriate kind of organisations to feed the media. Nandigram 2007 and Gujarat 2002 became front page news partly because they were located next to major cities (Ahmedabad and Calcutta) with concentrations of journalists, partly because of the presence of middle-class local activists, and partly because the issue was taken up by opposing parliamentary parties. Chhattisgarh, by contrast, lacks a tribal middle-class or a density of civil/political society organisations. Above all, Chhattisgarh, unlike West Bengal, also has a Public Security Act, which is even worse than Pota in terms of its censorship, and which has been used to arrest and intimidate people who have protested, such as the General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Binayak Sen.

But finally, the real difference lies in the principles of the Left and Right, between a state ruled for many years by the Left as in Bengal and one ruled by the BJP as in Gujarat. While the citizens of Gujarat let no hint of remorse taint their restful nights, the people of Bengal are today an anguished lot, anguished at the betrayal of the principles they voted for. Decades of CPI(M) rule may not have done much for Bengal’s human development indicators, but it has expanded the constituency of those who believe in democracy and equality.

As for Chhattisgarh, let us all go back to pretending that it doesn’t exist. At the rate that villages are being emptied and people killed, there will soon be nothing and nobody left to destroy.

Nandini Sundar is Professor of Sociology, Delhi University.