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Keep the safety valve intact

Do human rights activists justify human rights violations of security personnel? What role has CSOs and activists played in our society? And why are accusations being made against civil society, asks Anuradha M. Chenoy.

india Updated: May 25, 2010 22:39 IST
Anuradha M. Chenoy

The country is witnessing a spate of gruesome killing of civilians and security personnel by the Maoists. Civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists are not only appalled but collectively condemn and mourn such violence. Every human life is equally valuable and its loss should not only be regretted but looked into with equal seriousness.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram, while expressing anger and lack of a sufficient mandate to take action against the Maoists has targeted civil society as being responsible. Questions thus arise: is civil society responsible for the Maoist violence? Do human rights activists justify human rights violations of security personnel? What role has CSOs and activists played in our society? And why are accusations being made against civil society?

The belief that civil society condones Maoist action is misplaced. In the first place, civil society like political society or society at large can’t be homogenised as one single group with the same opinion, vision and ideas. There are strong, distinct and contending beliefs among its groups and actors. These differences when openly discussed and debated often lead to divisions and splits among them.

Civil society groups do not condone Maoist violence but they look for reasons why it occurs; how to address its root causes and how it impacts children, women, men and society. Since civil society by its very nature works outside the government and engages with people and issues that the government has generally excluded, they have different insights to problems that ordinary people, especially the poor and excluded, face. So to blame them for ‘Maoist violence’ just because they point to root causes may divert from the real reasons why a force of thousands can’t handle this. Further, such accusations are harmful to the cause of democracy itself.

One reason why civil society is attacked when Maoist violence erupts is because much of civil society understands and includes many types of violence that occur in our society. While violence in conflict zones is most direct, dramatic and evokes mass sympathy, the other violence often goes unheard and unheeded.

One such ‘other’ violence is structural violence when people are systematically malnourished; starvation deaths are a common occurrence; lack of timely medical intervention routinely leads to death from curable diseases, problems and epidemics. This ‘other’ violence is ‘normalised’ but it is slow, large scale but covered in silence and almost acceptable to many.

By attacking civil society the conflict gets framed as a simple binary of ‘with us or against us’, which is not the case. The middle ground, which is actually the space necessary for any negotiation, is lost. This is moreover exactly how the Maoists would like it. Where everyone is either with them or against them.

Yet another reason why civil society is targeted is because several of them critique violence by the State especially when it uses force while other methods of negotiations are possible. For example, on May 15, the Orissa government used security forces to disperse peaceful protestors who had been blockading an entry point to the proposed Posco steel plant for the last four months. Instead of listening to the people who were going to lose their land and livelihood for little in return, the government used force against the protesters. When CSOs cite such instances, these are seen as irrelevant and opposed to development.

Civil society does not equate development to mean just growth. It criticises development where special economic zones and mines are handed over displacing thousands without offering a sustainable alternative. Civil society supports rights-based human development where people have get an alternative livelihood, where not just capital but labour benefits as well. They believe that investing in this kind of development preempts crises and conflicts. The Maoists say they are protecting the tribals and the forests from ruthless exploitation. So should civil society drop these causes just to distinguish themselves from the Maoists?

Civil society is made weak and ineffectual — or even non-existent — in authoritarian, militarist and non-democratic States. It’s a nucleus of independent political activity that is crucial in countering the tyranny of the State. So when a State wants to clamp down, it attacks civil society first and the rest is easy.

Political theorists have shown on the basis of repeated historical experience that civil society plays a critical role in giving legitimacy to the State and also gives rise to movements that de-legitimise the state. State policies and laws generally are effective only when they are endorsed and accepted. A well-developed civil society can protect the State from economic and political crisis. So not only citizens but also politicians who are committed to democracy should have a vested interest in strengthening and maintaining well founded civil societies.