Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Violence and the State

What are the normal responses to violence and discontent in India, patterns that we have come to expect in almost machine like blueprint ? They tend to follow a standard operating procedure. First there are patchy protests and demands and agitations which are generally disregarded. The mighty state has no time to pay attention to the cribs and & gripes of ordinary people. They have other priorities, other issues to grapple with like for instance becoming a regional or global power or taking on super powers on their turf or fight political and ideological battles.

No one has time to spend on petty skirmishes. So if things get a bit noisy, they send in some police men with lathis or if things get bad , then with tear gas shells an if things get real bad, then folks with real guns and real bullets and they do some shooting practice and kill some defenseless people – pretty much like Jallianwala Bagh. There too, General Dyer whom we all love to hate got hold of his people and shot a peacefully gathered crowd hoping that he had put the fear of God into them.

But the reverse happened. his actions pumped some adrenaline into the freedom struggle with Mahatma Gandhi launching his non –cooperation movement soon after and revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh also becoming active in the rage spawned after the carnage. The pitiless General was finally disciplined after an enquiry but today, they is so much discontent and so many photocopies of the reviled general, that we have institutionalized what in those days was an isolated incident and rarely is the system ready any more to punish its own elite.

What happens when the police go in with their batons and their lathis and the tear gas and guns? Does by killing or brutalizing people a problem disappear? Of course not. Just as it did not then in the days of Jalianwala Bagh. The establishment thought then that by terrorizing people, the grip of the state would be strengthened but the opposite happened then and the same thing happens now. Dissent gets strengthened, not the state.

Today there are no Mahatma Gandhis around who would call off the Non Cooperation movement because a small police station in then unknown Chauri Chaura was set on fire. Many modern historians view the Chauri Chaura incident as a minor episode of violence, which while regrettable, did not merit the cancellation of a nation's demand for political freedom.

Supporters of Gandhi's point of view agree with his decision, as it was feared by Gandhi that Chauri Chaura was not an isolated incident, but a shocking episode in a rising trend of violence between protesters and police, which could have degenerated into an orgy of mob violence, which would justify martial law and police suppression of even more civil liberties. Whatever be the case, there existed a sensitivity those days that human lives and liberty were important and worthy of preservation. Today there are no Bhagat Singhs either but there are lots of guns and lots of people who love to use them without the courage or the convictions of either of the giants. And so violence escalates.

Once violence escalates beyond a point, then the state decides that talks are called for certain rebellions and agitations simply will not be crushed. So after decades of agitation the Nagas are called for talks and some times these talks drag on for decades because a problem that was simple to begin with has become extremely complex with the passage of time. The same thing has happened in Assam with the Assam accord, in West Bengal with the Gorkhas, in Assam with the Bodos, in Mizoram with the Mizos and now the same route of talks is being contemplated with the Nasalizes in Andhra Pradesh and else where.

Of course in Kashmir, the matter of repression and talks has taken such a turn that no one knows exactly what is to be expected around the bend. There is that famous quote that says some things about those who haven’t learnt anything from history are doomed to repeat it again. Looks to me that we ought to have things learnt many times over by now but haven’t because we keep doing the same things that Gen. Dyer did nearly a century ago. Worse, General Dyer was the representative of an imperialist regime who had no particular reason to be sensitive to the wishes of the Indian people. But when we shoot and kill our own people and then appoint commissions of enquiry, it seems to me that we have just stooped a notch lower.

Crime and Punishment

The Leftist magazine Mainstream in a recent issue carried a very interesting article by Shree Shankar Sharan, representing a Gandhian organization Lok Paksh. The article offered a constructive and rather innovative solution to deal with the Naxalites of Andhra Pradesh, a festering sore that refuses to go away. Drawing on their experiences in dealing with Maoists in Bihar, they suggested that the Naxalites be dealt with using Gandhian tactics (no not Gandhigiri!). Considering the relevance that we give Gandhiji and his methods today, and especially the questions that were often raised as to whether his methods and ideas would work with anarchist groups, it could have been thought to have been a utopian idea unworthy of any serious consideration.

As I think about it, I wonder why I or any one else should think of the idea as so far fetched and why we have always looked upon the Naxalites and other forms of extremist violence as something to be countered by force and not by any other means. There was a time when another group of people who were as lawless were actually won over to the path of peace through peaceful methods. In fact , one of Jayaprakash Narayan’s lasting contributions which has lasted(the Janata Party experiment of course did not last!) was to bring about a mass surrender of the Chambal dacoits in 1972. It was an event that TIME magazine, no friend of India then, deigned to cover it in fair detail.

Nor was JP’s effort the first of its nature. Our story goes back to the 1960's when Tehsildar Singh, son of legendary dacoit Man Singh wrote a letter to Vinoba Bhave from his cell in Naini Jail. He was serving a death sentence and wanted to see Vinoba once to discuss the problem of dacoity in Chambal and how to rid it of the curse. Although Vinoba was on a padyatra in Kashmir at that time, Tehsildar Singh's letter drew him to the Chambal. In May 1960, he went round the valley, spreading his message of truth, love and compassion Twenty dacoits surrendered their arms before him: it was a triumph of non-violence and human good sense. The dacoits were prepared to face the law courts and jail sentences courageously. The specially constituted Chambal Valley Peace Committee helped them in their efforts. After their release, they were given Bhoodan lands to lead a simple and peaceful life---they had no ambition of becoming film stars or politicians or gaining cheap publicity”

The story was again repeated when Arjun Singh was the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh when the then bandit chieftain Malkhan Singh surrendered and then possibly for the last time in 2005 when a gang led by Arvind Gujar surrendered to the Madhya Pradesh police. The surrender was slightly different in the sense that the police admitted that the surrender took place as a result of as a result of pressure mounted by the police. Surrender enforced at gunpoint is not exactly the Gandhian method but perhaps still a better method than encounter killings, deaths and counter killings in retaliation. In fact after this incident, the whole route of peace and reconciliation seems to have been abandoned and all that one hears of are deaths, killings, ambushes and an ever increasing number of orphans and widows. Perhaps the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister should pay heed to the letter from the Gandhian leader and open the door for repentance and reconciliation and talks rather than go down the path of ruthless revenge that every one else seems to be taking.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Minority Speak

After reading from Tehelka and Aaj Tak about the way we treat our minorities in some parts of the country and then gloat about it, I watched this TV news feed where a Sikh cadet was just commissioned into the Pakistan Army. Till that newscast, the only other minority I had heard of who was holding some post of distinction in Pakistan was a Hindu, Justice Bhagwan Das, who was officiating as the Supreme Court chief justice. Of course, I am sure there must be more at other levels like for Danesh Kaneria in their cricket team but we don’t hear of them much
In a sense there is nothing unusual about this – Pakistan is an Islamic state but inspite of the many attempts at Islamization, strands of other original vision of a secular state do survive and find utterance through such instances. But I wonder if people like this, religious minorities in an avowedly religious state at least officially lead a schizophrenic existence with an identity that only complicates life in many situations. Partly it is complicated because Pakistan itself seems some times to be a confused identity – not quite an Islamic state like the Taliban’s Afghanistan or even theocratic Iran where minorities know their place (next to nothing!) or a avowedly secular state where religious identity does not mater – most of Europe at perhaps!

I wonder what goes through the minorities’ mind. The thought of a Sikh soldier shouting Jo Bole Sonehal and charging at an Indian soldier seems to be a little incomprehensible. Try to picture this mentally. A large number of the Sikh Gurus lost their lives at the hands of the Mughal emperors and the Sikh war cry was coined in the battlefields fighting Muslims. The turban that Harcharan Singh wears is a symbol of the Khalsa, a military style brotherhood created when the initially pacifist community established by Guru Nanak was under threat of annihilation by the Muslims. Yet the Sikh officer Harcharan Singh shortly after the passing out parade has to assure his countrymen that if and when the time comes, the Sikhs would prove no less loyal than their Muslim brothers.

Who was the enemy in mind when Harcharan Singh made the statement? The pro Taliban militia that the Pakistan Army is fighting on the Eastern borders? Unlikely. No one’s heart in Muslim Pakistan would have wanted to hear that a Sikh officer would go the extra mile in fighting a battle which a large section of the Pakistan Army believes to be fratricidal in nature and which they are carrying out largely out of political and other compulsions. It is obvious that the young Sikh officer was making these comments alluding to India as the shadow enemy. But the fact that he had to make such a statement is significant.

The minorities have this peculiar need that they need to deal with; the perennial need to make known that they are loyal and though the article in Indian Express was the one that caught my attention and the article referred to Pakistan, the same holds true in India as well. Much like the medieval serf from whom nothing was explicitly demanded but a tribute was always expected, minorities, not only are often expected to cough up the tribute to the mai baap majority but deliver it up front the at the first instance or be taught a lesson by the likes of Narendra Modi and this appears to be true as much as in theocratic Pakistan ruled by the blasphemy laws as much as in secular India with its Freedom of Religion Laws

Caste and Ethnic Based Violence

Ethnic riots are most likely to occur when four elements are present: ethnic antagonism, an emotional response to a precipitating event, a sense on the part of the rioters and the larger social group to which they belong that killing is justifiable, and the assessment by rioters that the risk of response from police is low. Policymakers can reduce the incidence of ethnic riots by increasing the risk of response from police.

Donald Horowitz noted that deadly ethnic riots are sometimes confused with other types of ethnic violence. He defined ethnic riots as intense, sudden, but not necessarily wholly unplanned, lethal attacks on the civilian members of one ethnic group by civilian members of another ethnic group, with the victims chosen because of their group membership. Such riots are vicious events that involve not just killing and maiming but also mutilations and other atrocities. These riots usually produce large numbers of deaths, even more refugees and internally displaced persons, and greater ethnic homogeneity in the area as a result of the violence that has occurred.

In India, ethnic riots have risen in prominence as pressures of land, employment and resources have increasingly come under pressure as populations rise and the level of resources remain what they always have been. Usually they are more common in the East and North East of India where employment opportunities ar scarce outside the traditional avenues of agriculture and more recently a post in the swelling government bureaucracy. So great is the pressure that candidates went all the way from Bihar to Assam to apply for what the Government calls Group D positions and were received with an angry gang of local Assamese people who wanted them as well and the resultant riots left many injured and bruised.

Typically ethnic riots arise in a situation where there is a sense of one ethnic community being edged out by others. For instance, The Assamese had to cope with the influx of Bengalis into their state since the pre-independence period. They, thus, attempted to neutralize the impact of these migrants on their economy and society through enactment of the line system and deportation. The economic migrant flow to the state started in the 1820s owing to the discovery of tea and it continues till date. These migrants were used in the pre-independence period by the Muslim political leaders for their political agenda to retain power and subsequently merge the state with Muslim majority provinces. Thereafter, in the post-independence period, these migrants were exploited as en masse vote banks by the Indian political leadership, giving rise to a further influx of illegal migrants to the state.

Ethnic riots are most visible in the North Eastern part of India and has its origins in the innumerable tribes and ethnic entities that inhabit the place each of which is trying hard to preserve its language and customs from being inundated by large scale migration both legal an illegal and the other influences of modernity that are creeping in relentlessly. The various terrorist groups active there represent the diverse groups like Ahoms, Bodos, Kukis, Meitis and many, many others too numerous to mention. In a democracy where primacy is largely given to numerical superiority, small tribes and communities who fear that their identity and existence is threatened become insecure and become assertive and some times violently so.

Closely related are the caste riots seen in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in particular, where the issue at hand was domination of a different kind. Egged on by radical left groups and also by mainline political groupings like the Bahujan Samaj Party, the established feudal systems began to be challenged. Not only was this rebellion violent in its manifestation, the resistance put by established feudal classes the Bhumihars who put up the Ranbir Sena and the Muslim landlords who set up the Sunlight Sena was equally violent and brutal.

There are different opinions about the emergence of Senas in Bihar. Some consider that the Senas came into existence in response to the Naxalite terrorism. Some attribute the rise of Senas as, fallout of the green revolution. According to them the greater productivity could not remove the basic inequalities that existed between the landlords and the landless. The demand of fair distribution by the peasants led to the formation of Senas to suppress the landless laborers.

The increase in the physical manifestation of violence also owes to hitherto-subordinated communities asserting their rights. It is only when subaltern communities seek to transgress boundaries drawn by society that we see eruptions. The spurt in brutality should not be read merely as collusion between civil society and the State. “The widespread violence inflicted on Dalits across the country, particularly in the North, owes also to their assertion in the public domain — especially in the wake of Mandal and the Ambedkar centenary in 1990.

Besides Davits, several communities — sub-castes, religious minorities, tribes — are organizing themselves as identity movements. “The secular and liberal intellectuals are uncomfortable with such assertions of caste and religious minorities, but these struggles are significantly reshaping democracy in India. The violence we see today is a result of these contestations