Wednesday, October 31, 2007

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.

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