ARMS AND THE COMMON MAN - What does it mean to be given a gun to fight the enemy of the State?

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  • Published 10.06.08

Does democracy offer us real choice? You may choose to be neither with the terrorists nor with the State — but what are you left with then? Your non-commitment can be construed as tacit support by one party or the other. So the more silent we remain, the more readily we let democracy dovetail into some form of majoritarianism. We get co-opted into the choices made on our behalf.

In reality, only the State has the absolute right to make choices. It has the power to determine the lives of its people, the authority to twist the law, and distinguish friend from foe.

A report submitted by an experts group of the Planning Commission in April 2008 describes the Salwa Judum as “an abdication of the state itself”. If it is an abdication, then it is a calculated one. This vigilante campaign took off officially as a “spontaneous” resistance by the tribals of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, but its origins are murkier. Commentators have described the Salwa Judum as “security outsourcing”, but “terror outsourcing” is perhaps a more accurate description of it.

Salwa Judum was the BJP-led state government’s brainchild. It started as a civil militia formed out of the tribal population, who were given arms to resist the revolutionaries and turned into special police officers, thus giving a legal cover for their activities. Predictably, the people’s army outgrew its purpose. It began raiding villages, attacking suspected Maoist sympathizers, levying illegal taxes, and checking all vehicles passing through their areas.

Responding to a public interest litigation in 2007, the Supreme Court asked the state to order an impartial inquiry into these atrocities. The Planning Commission report now confirms the worst suspicions about Salwa Judum, accusing it of precipitating “a fratricidal war” in which “those tribals who are unattached to either the Naxalites or those opposing them, become victims of violence by all agencies — Naxalites, squads formed to fight them, and the security forces”. The Salwa Judum has become as formidable as the Janjaweed — the pro-government Arab militia in Sudan — responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and as dangerously autonomous as the Bakassi Boys, the quasi-military outfit in Nigeria.

Despite its notoriety, the Centre is not only reluctant to ban the Salwa Judum, but also keen on using this model in other states. In the village of Heirok, Manipur, young men would now be given guns to fight the cadre of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak.

It is not difficult to figure out how the State is double-crossing its citizens. The government declares itself a failed State, confessing freely to its inability to protect the people. It also makes business sense to outsource security because protecting the tribals from the Naxalites was “too expensive” any way, as Chhattisgarh’s director-general of police has explained. If this does not justify anything, it at least begins to explain something. But what kind of reasoning could explain away the fact of turning common people into fodder for the insurgents’ guns?

Even as the Naxalite threat remains palpably real, there is no doubt that the idea of a civil militia is based on a State-centric interpretation of security. The people are told who the enemy are and then armed to fight them. This form of ‘self-defence’ grows out of a dangerous short-sightedness. The State believes that because it has the power to establish civil militias, the latter are regulated by, and accountable to, the former. The State presumes, first, its monopoly over the threat or use of force within its territories. Second, since militias are sanctioned by the State, they would never usurp the primacy of the institution that gives them their raison d’être, and never challenge the regular armed forces or the law of the land. The reality is more complicated and treacherous — the hand that feeds gets bitten most often.