|‘If Chidambaram claims that the Northeast is trotting back to normality then security forces have to justify their continued existence in Assam and Manipur where they form a huge contingent’
Maoist bogeyman in Assam
Union home minister P. Chidambaram has on several occasions stated that militancy is declining rapidly in the northeastern states. And judging by the current situation where several virulent insurgent outfits of the region, led by the NSCN (I-M), are in talks with the government of India, one would tend to agree with Chidambaram.
Of course, fratricidal killings in Nagaland continue with impunity and the state would prefer to look the other way, for obvious reasons. It is easy to label the government of India as a demon incarnate but how do you exorcise the demons in your own cupboards? Nagaland, therefore, presents a different conundrum.
It is what’s happening in Assam that is worrying. The alleged fake encounter killings; the hue and cry generated by none other than the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that Assam is suddenly turning into a Maoist’s paradise and the fact that the media is lapping up all this information without as much as a hint of scepticism makes you feel that liberal thinking is on the wane and that everyone prefers to wear the statist lens.
A recent visit by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team to Assam was revealing. According to recent statistics, Assam accounts for nearly half of the country’s encounter deaths registered by the NHRC. Of the 183 alleged fake encounter deaths (by the police, army and paramilitary forces) registered last year, 87 took place in Assam. Besides, recorded cases have increased considerably in the past three years. The 31 cases registered in 2009-10 rose to 54 in 2010-11, which again rose by over 50 per cent to 87 cases last year. For those who are used to looking at dead bodies as mere statistics, these killings might appear like collateral damage in the state’s attempt to control insurgent activities. And citizens who have lived under the shadow of the gun for years might even condone such deaths as being inevitable in a situation where the state has been given the right to “smoke the insurgents out of their holes” a la George Bush post the 9/11 terror attacks.
Fear of Maoists
Encounter deaths are not uncommon when security forces are compelled to show results. And to build up a watertight case of a genuine encounter they would have to raise the bogey of Maoism or Naxalism or even of newly constructed acronyms of new insurgent outfits. Hardened journalists know that if the state wants to label anyone a terrorist/Maoist, it can plant weapons and grenades of all kinds and cook up a case to justify why a person was killed or arrested. The arrested person has very little victim defence for himself. How can we forget Binayak Sen, a humane doctor who was accused of being a Maoist for serving the depressed tribals of Chattisgarh? The state is all-powerful and this is something only those who find themselves behind bars on concocted cases cooked up by the security forces will understand.
If Chidambaram claims that the Northeast is trotting back to normality then security forces have to justify their continued existence in Assam and Manipur where they form a huge contingent. I have always wondered what would happen to the 55,000 security forces, mostly the Assam Rifles, if Manipur were to remain peaceful. Where will the forces be deployed? Can the state continue to support a force whose utility has diminished?
With Myanmar getting back on the rails as a new democratic entity which is not entirely supportive of lending its forests to our insurgent outfits, it would be difficult for them to continue their subversive activities against the Indian state. Bangladesh has already co-operated hugely in the effort to smoke out our rebels.
No wonder we have a compliant Arabinda Rajkhowa now donning the mantle of a wise elder.
Truth or information?
There is an equally huge contingent of security forces in Assam. What is ironic is the Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s recent demand for 125 companies of central paramilitary forces. This request was made to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his recent visit to Assam. Gogoi has asked that the seven districts of Upper Assam be brought under the integrated action plan to arrest the growing influence of what he calls Left wing extremism. At present, there are 97 companies of central paramilitary forces. The chief minister pointed out there is a need to include seven Maoist-infested districts under IAC before it becomes a menace.
You begin to wonder what sort of intelligence the chief minister is depending on. Is the Intelligence Bureau (IB) feeding him this strategic information? Or is it Military Intelligence (MI) that the state is depending on? Has the information been test-checked? State slogans such as “the red corridor is extending to the Northeast” are highly problematic. This is because our only source of information is the IB or the MI. But who else can counter these two agencies? The media does not have adequate resources to come out with a counterpoint. Yet apart from the media there is no non-partisan actor in Assam today. One way or the other people are connected to the state. What is of concern, however, is the media’s own inability to remain neutral and questioning. It was a witty scribe who once said nothing can be worse for the media than when journalists becomes mere stenographers, taking down notes and vomiting that out as news report. No questioning, no doubting, no scepticism.
We used to believe that life in Jammu and Kashmir is uncertain and that atrocities by security forces are unaccounted for. But we now know for a fact that “alleged fake encounter” deaths are higher in Assam. Should this not be a rallying point for groups that believe in civil liberties? And mind you those killed are usually powerless, voiceless rural folks. Their family members are too poor to take up their cases on the right platform. But the fact that the NHRC has taken cognisance of the cases as probable fake encounters means that there are human rights activists who are keeping a tight vigil over such killings. This is something to be thankful for.
To come back to my earlier argument, if security forces have to justify their existence in Assam and Manipur, they have to construct a bogeyman. At this point, Maoism is that bogeyman. Even the NIA has to qualify its own presence. If there is nothing to be alarmed about, people would begin to question the need for such top-heavy agencies. What is sad is that the Gogoi government is complicit in this. When the poor protest against state injustice such as the starvation deaths in the tea gardens and against governance vacuum in Assam, they do not need to cling to an ideology. Interestingly, the anti-dam protesters, too, have been purportedly linked to Maoist ideologies. Thankfully Akhil Gogoi, its leader, is politically visible and loud. He can mobilise the peasantry like no politician can. Hence, the state views him with a different prism. But others who are rotting in prisons or have been gunned down are not so fortunate. The tragedy today is that the death of voiceless villagers is important for the state to prove its claims that Assam is going the Dantewada and Gadchiroli way. These are issues that should trigger a debate in Assam. Will civil society wake up? And will the media be more intrusive?
(The writer can be contacted at email@example.com)