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Courting the devil

States must accept responsibility for the crimes of hate and violence perpetrated by non-State organisations, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Dec 30, 2008 22:55 IST

As the flames of war are being fanned in both India and Pakistan, fortunately there are sane voices of restraint against the futility of sacrificing precious young lives in both countries. Also, since military pressure on terrorists operating along the border with Afghanistan would ease as troops engage the Indian armed forces, nothing will be gained in the battle against international terror. There could be heavy civilian casualties, although there is no conflict between the people of the two lands. In times of global economic crisis, the economies on both sides of the border will flounder, inflaming prices, and extinguishing food and jobs.

But this orchestra of war and hate has muffled an important debate which concerns the major defence of the Pakistani establishment, as voiced by President Zardari, to the effect that the State has no responsibility — legal, moral or practical — for the violence perpetrated by what he describes as ‘non-State actors’. This means that even if non-State individuals and organisations based in Pakistan plan and execute acts of terror, within its borders or outside, the Pakistan government cannot be held responsible. Arguments like these have enabled these organisations to operate with impunity, given the assurance that they will go unpunished for their transgressions. The issue gets murkier when allegedly non-State organisations implement the illegal, unconstitutional and violent political agendas of the State. Blurring the already thin lines between the State and non-State are elements within the state which openly or tacitly support these organisations — whether logistically, morally or politically.

States must accept responsibility for the crimes of hate and violence perpetrated by non-State organisations. In a salutary ruling following the 2002 Gujarat carnage, the National Human Rights Commission Chairperson Justice Verma had held that States were vicariously but directly responsible for crimes that organisations outside the State commit, if the state does not do enough to rein in, control and punish them. In practice, however, most communal riots tend to be more in the nature of pogroms, where non-State organisations commit hate crimes with impunity, given a sympathetic political command, police, magistracy and judiciary, which often shares their ideology of hate.

States often use non-State actors as their front-line forces, without spilling the more costly blood of their men in uniform. Examples in India are militant renegades, such as the surrendered militants in Kashmir, the ikwanis; or in insurgent north-eastern regions, like the surrendered ULFA. Armed by the State, answerable to no law or code, they loot and kill civilian populations in conflict zones without fear of punishment. Vigilante armies like the Salwa Judum have been set up by the state in Chhattisgarh to provide dispensable foot soldiers in the battle against Maoist insurgency.

But those who play with fire will one day burn in it, like the Taliban has turned against Pakistan in alliance with extremist religious fringe groups which have miniscule support, but are holding the country to ransom. But this is not a time for war, because a war will only strengthen and embolden the forces of hate and terror and engender enormous human suffering. Instead, it is a time to tell our governments unambiguously that they can no longer protect and foster those who live by the gun, by hate and terror. It is a time to refuse to accept the thin and dishonest defence of government helplessness before the crimes of non-State actors. .

Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari.

First Published: Dec 30, 2008 22:53 IST