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People vs the people

The Supreme Court order against the Salwa Judum’s vigilantism in Chhattisgarh must be read by all, especially government officials. Ramachandra Guha writes.

india Updated: Jul 11, 2011 01:34 IST
Ramachandra Guha

The Supreme Court order against the Salwa Judum’s vigilantism in Chhattisgarh must be read by all, especially government officials.

The details of the civil war in the tribal districts of Chhattisgarh are largely unknown to most readers of this newspaper. For the region is remote and inaccessible, and easily ignored by the national media.

This civil war pits, on the one side, Maoist extremists, and, on the other, a band of vigilantes funded and armed by the state government. These vigilantes, originally promoted by a Congress politician named Mahendra Karma, were then appointed ‘Special Police Officers’ (SPOs) by chief minister Raman Singh, who belongs to the BJP.

In a trip through Dantewada and Bastar districts in 2006, I saw the first, and very poisonous, fruits of this state-sponsored vigilantism. It had divided adivasi society down the line: pitting brother against brother, family against family, village against village, clan against clan.

An atmosphere of terror and fear pervaded the district in 2006; subsequently, matters have become far worse. Thousands of unaffiliated, innocent tribals have been killed in the war. Many others have had their homes burnt and their women violated. In response, several Public Interest Litigations (in one of which I was a co-petitioner) were filed in the Supreme Court (SC).

After many hearings spread over several years, the court has issued an order on the matter. This order is worth perusing by all concerned with the future of constitutional democracy in India.

The judges hearing the petitions, Justice B Sudershan Reddy and Justice Surinder Singh Nijjar, observed that the Chhattisgarh government appointed thousands of ‘barely literate tribal youth as SPOs’, and then asked them ‘to undertake tasks that only members of the official and formal police ought to be undertaking’.

The regular police and the paramilitary were content to expose untrained tribals to the wrath of the Maoists. As a result, the SPOs suffered, in proportionate terms, far higher casualties than the CRPF or the police. Thus, through conscious State policies, ‘the young tribals have literally become cannon fodder in the killing fields of Dantewada and other districts of Chhattisgarh’.

Over the past few decades, several million adivasis have lost their lands and homes to extractive industries such as logging, large dams and mining. The discontent this dispossession created was exploited by the Maoists to win adivasi recruits to their own murderous cause.

To reclaim the alienated tribals for constitutional democracy is unquestionably one of the country’s greatest challenges. How can this challenge be met?

Perhaps in two ways: first, by making tribals equal partners in economic growth; second, by containing extremism through a well-trained, well-paid, and highly-focused police force.

As it happens, state governments across India have disregarded tribal complaints, and given more leases to rapacious mining companies. Meanwhile, the government of Chhattisgarh outsourced law and order to untrained tribal youth.

This resulted, as the apex court points out, in “a miasmic environment of dehumanisation of youngsters of the deprived sections of the population, in which guns are given to them rather than books, to stand as guards, for the rapine, plunder and loot in our forests”. By arming poor and largely illiterate adivasis, the Chhattisgarh government had installed “a regime of gross violation of human rights in a manner, and by adopting the same modes, as [have] done Maoist/Naxalite extremists”.

The SC held that the creation of SPOs violated “the promise of equality before the law” assured by Article 14 of the Constitution, since it treats unequals as equals, asking untrained adivasis to conduct tasks meant for trained policemen. It also violated “the dignity of life” promised by Article 21, since these adivasi young men are wilfully exposed to the risk of death.

While critical of government policies, the court also expressed its disappointment with its cavalier response to questions and queries.

Thus, in its replies to the court, the state and central governments repeatedly insisted “that the only option for the state was to rule with an iron fist, establish a social order in which every person is to be treated as suspect, and anyone speaking for human rights of citizens to be deemed as suspect, and a Maoist”.

The judges were “aghast at the blindness to constitutional limitations of the state of Chhattisgarh, and some of its advocates, in claiming that anyone who questions the inhumanity that are 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 the… sanction, under our Constitution, to perpetrate its policies of ruthless violence.”

The SC order observes that “lawless violence, in response to violence by the Maoist/Naxalite insurgency, has not, and will not, solve the problems, and instead it will only perpetuate the cycles of more violen[ce]”. The state of affairs in Chhattisgarh today reminded the judges of the state of 19th century Africa, as described in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.

The actions of both parties to the conflict manifest “the darkness, represented by inhumanity and evil, to which individual human beings are capable of descending, when supreme and unaccounted force is vested, rationalised by a warped world-view that parades itself as pragmatic and inevitable”.

The SC order should be read by all thinking Indians, and by the officials of the Chhattisgarh state government in particular. For, in following the cynical and amoral policies promoted by their political masters, these officials have done a disservice to the citizens they have pledged to serve, and to the constitutional ideals they have sworn to uphold.

To now continue with these policies would, as the Supreme Court notes, “lay the road to national destruction”.

(Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. The views expressed by the author are personal)