It happened one day in the first half of the Nineties in one of our houses of parliament. The Congress regime was enjoying its honeymoon with “economic reform”, and had stopped payment of salaries and wages to employees of several public sector units it wanted to kill off. A left member of parliament rose in his seat and pilloried the government. The purport of what he said was roughly the following: the non-payment of wages was not only in breach of contract, it was also immoral; the left would not cease in their endeavour to ensure justice to the public sector employees; they were at the moment on their best behaviour, but their patience was not unending and, should the government remain unresponsive, the left would cease to be gentlemanly. The Union home minister, present in the house, was livid: the left member of parliament was threatening the government; although the words the member of parliament used were not as such unparliamentary, the tenor of what he said was; how dared he blackmail the house and the government with the threat of ungentlemanly behaviour' The presiding officer agreed with the home minister; the member of parliament’s remarks were expunged from the proceedings of the house. To threaten or not to threaten to be ungentlemanly was deemed to be no longer the question.
The predicament, however, persists. Consider the awkwardness of the present relationship between the left and the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre. The left do not like the government’s decision to liberalize the scope of foreign investment, the members disapprove of the decision to lower the rate of interest on employees’ provident fund; they are aghast at the government’s resolve to mollycoddle the spongers who lord over the good-for-nothing share markets; they are similarly most unhappy with the periodic hiking of oil and gas prices; they are angry that despite the government’s expression of ritualistic concern for the poor, the actual budgetary allocations to ameliorate rural poverty have been perfunctory.
There is the rub. The left can protest, but the protest has to be gentlemanly; even were the government to turn down all their major demands, their protest must still not be stretched to the point of voting out the regime, since that would mean the return of the parivar. For the Congress-led coalition at the Centre, the excellence of the situation could not be more tailor-made: the parivar will continue to provide it with a blanket insurance cover even if the government goes on a reactionary rampage, the left could be expected to remain ever so gentlemanly — at least such is the impression that has gained ground.
The Manipuris unfortunately have drawn up another kind of agenda. They have stopped being gentlemanly. They, as an entire community, have risen in revolt against excesses committed by Indian army contingents. They have demanded the scrapping of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Disturbed Areas Act. They have already forced the state government to withdraw, without waiting for the leave of the Centre, the ambit of the AFSP Act from Imphal and the adjoining territories. That appears to be only the beginning; they are giving every indication that they will not be satisfied till both pieces of legislation are totally banished. They have in fact grown so ungentlemanly that they are threatening to boycott “India”-made goods unless their demands are conceded in full.
The Centre is in jitters. It does not have the courage to undo the decision of the state government with respect to the AFSP Act, but it cannot swallow it either. For if the people of Manipur win their battle, the contagion will spread and there will be similar demands from other states, including from Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam to scrap the two legislations which give the Union government — and its army and security forces — absolute and unchallengeable power over the lives and limbs of the citizens of India in areas where these are enforced.
With officiousness, strong pressure will no doubt get built within establishment circles to suppress, with a firm hand, uncivil conduct on the part of the wretched border people. Contrary views on the matter have been expressed in public even by senior cabinet ministers. Clearly, there is a deep division in the government’s own mind.
And perhaps exceeding the embarrassment caused to the government by fissures within it will be the embarrassment to parties and groups who otherwise swear by democratic decentralization. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the sangh parivar will have no problems, they will go along should the Congress finally opt for the continuation — and ruthless enforcement — of the AFSP Act and the Disturbed Areas Act in Manipur and elsewhere. The greater discomfiture will be on the part of the other constituents of the UPA — for example, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam — and of the left as a whole. Twenty years ago, these parties had met at a much-publicized congregation in Srinagar and had taken a severely agnostic view of these two statutes — these infamous legislations, they had gone on record, were a blot on the country’s democratic process.
Will it be ungentlemanly to suggest to the left that this is precisely the moment for them to decide to be at least marginally ungentlemanly; in case they would do so, they could conceivably succeed in getting rid of these two acts, something even the setting up of the Sarkaria commission, and the recommendations it made, had failed to achieve.
May one, with due civility, move on to another, not altogether unrelated, matter' Events in the North-east as well as in Kashmir should have amply proved by now that excessive show of military might, accompanied by obsession over security, does not guarantee law and order. Further alienation of the people in these regions apart, the continuous rise in defence and security outlays prevents the state from spending more in such areas as education, health, irrigation, flood control and rural employment.
Had the left been obstreperously vocal and succeeded in stalling the rise of defence expenditure in this year’s budget by Rs 17,000 crore, the money thus saved could have helped, for instance, to add to the outlay on rural development, to augment the allotment for the health ministry, to push up the allocation for education somewhat closer to the targeted 6 per cent of gross domestic product; what is more, a part of the money withheld from defence and security expenditure could have been used to raise the interest on employees’ provident fund from 9.5 per cent to at least 10 per cent or to provide subsidy that could stifle the rise in oil and domestic gas prices.
In any case, the bulk of the sum of Rs 17,000 crore additionally earmarked for defence is sure to end up in the pockets of foreign armament merchants and their agents. This is not very much different from inviting foreigners to take over our airfields, our telecommunications system and our insurance business. No amount of sophistry on the part of the national security buffs can establish the point that squeezing funds from out of the defence budget to feed the hungry, educate children, improve the health of the people and create jobs for the unemployed is less patriotic than according funds to army and security personnel together with a carte blanche for performing acts that are dubiously gentlemanly — like shooting down innocent day-farers this or that side of the border, or molesting women very much on this side.