Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Out of sight, out of mind

t is hard to decide which is more unappetising — the spectacle of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee declaring that the CPI(M) had paid those against the West Bengal’s industrialisation programme in Nandigram “back in their own coin”, or the BJP and the Congress condemning the violence there while ignoring their own culpability for similar behaviour in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh respectively. The use of vigilante groups or armed cadres, supported and sanctioned by a pliant bureaucracy, to physically defeat an opposing group, rather than relying on legal means and political discussions, is evidently the latest fashion in governance. It is time, we are told, to forget the old expectation that it is the police that is meant to maintain law and order and not gangs of party members.

What happened in Nandigram at the behest of the West Bengal Chief Minister is not very different from the Salwa Judum — ‘peace mission’ — being run jointly by the Congress MLA of Dantewada, Mahendra Karma, and the BJP government of Chhattisgarh. Here armed vigilantes, some of them given official positions as special police officers (SPOs), burn villages, kill people and rape women with impunity on the grounds that they are wresting these areas back from the Naxalites. Officials take orders from party goons. In Dantewada district, a letter from the Chief Secretary carries less weight than the orders of a lumpen Salwa Judum camp leader.

In both cases, the presence of Maoists is used to imply that anything goes; that once an area is declared ‘Naxal affected’, all the normal protections of the rule of law and fundamental rights cease to apply. Government presence in these areas then depends solely on the power of the gun, and the relative superiority of its police and vigilantes over the ‘other side’ that include unarmed civilians.

Yet, the differences between Nandigram and Dantewada are also striking. Even though the scale of Salwa Judum terror is far greater than that being witnessed in Nandigram, it has gone almost entirely unreported. According to the figures provided in a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court, at least 540 persons have been killed by the Salwa Judum and security forces since June 2005, including 33 children and 45 women. This is a small fraction of the killings by the Salwa Judum, most of which have gone unrecorded, and does not include the approximately 550 civilians and police personnel that the Naxalites have killed in escalating retaliatory action for Salwa Judum. At least 2,825 houses have been burnt by the Salwa Judum and at least 99 women have been raped. Approximately, one lakh people — one-eighth the district’s population — has been displaced. Half of them are in government-controlled camps to which they were forcibly evacuated, and the other half are refugees in neighbouring states.

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