Nandigram and Bastar: Has India failed its people?

India, supposedly the largest functioning democracy of the world, continues to shock the world by violating the human rights and dignity of its own people. So while boasting of being a democratically elected government, the state—both central and provincial—keeps on killing it own people with absolute impunity. Recently, India witnessed two gruesome incidents of mass killings—one by the West Bengal Government and its police forces and second, by an armed resistance group in the Bastar district of Chhatisgarh. In one incident, the police killed innocent citizens, while in the other, citizens killed police personnel.

The significance of these two cases goes far beyond what is being discussed in the mass media and during public discourse. Instead, what these incidents primarily indicate is more the failure of the Indian state in ensuring and ingraining the democratic ethos in its own agencies and the consequent loss of people’s confidence in the state. Today’s India is a highly divided and polarized society. On the one hand, there are the ruling elites and the urban middle classes who are reaping the benefits of the growth model the Indian state is committed to. These classes enjoy world-class facilities in almost all aspects of life. They have the best of hospitals catering to all their health needs—keeping in mind of course that India is fast emerging as the hub of medical tourism; they have the best schools—including international ones, the latest gadgets and other luxuries. This class, despite being numerically a minority, has emerged as the dominant social class, in command of most of the resources and power.

On the other hand India is also witnessing a rapid deterioration in the conditions of those who are not part of this growing and assertive middle class—namely, the impoverished peasantry and the pauperised urban poor. In fact, the alienation of the lower strata of Indian society is near-complete. Their main problem is that they do not own means of production have no access to the sources of livelihood and are being kept out of the required bare minimums of social security like access to healthcare and education.

History of Exploitation

A closer analysis of the aforementioned two incidents makes a few other points clear. Bastar is one of those nondescript places, which does not seem to merit any attention from the state and its agencies. It forms part of one of the most beautiful forest areas in Central India and most of its population is tribal. And despite being rich in minerals and other resources, the district fares rather poorly on most other social and economic indices. Tribals living in the area are largely illiterate, do not own any agricultural lands and are largely dependent upon minor forest produce to eke out a living.

They have a long history of being exploited by the colonial rulers and the situation does not seem to have changed even after Independence. There are numerous report of sexual harassment of tribal women by men of the dominant castes and government officials. They do not have access to even basic health facilities and instead have to dependent on quacks. They do not have roads, electricity and other basic necessities of modern societies. After the introduction of the new forest policy, they were driven out of the jungles and were deprived of even the little they had.

They naively believed that all this was happening because they were ruled by a ‘different’ people and their lot would improve if they got to run their own state. They thus, demanded that the state of Chhatisgarh be carved out of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Sadly however, even after the new state was formed the situation did not change—in fact, it deteriorated. Therefore, after exhausting all democratic means of improving their conditions, people began to lose confidence in the state and considered themselves as ‘cheated’. These were the circumstances under which they took to arms and declared ‘a war on the Indian state’.

In Nandigram, the situation is little different. There, an unauthorized notice announced that the agricultural lands of the people would be taken away by the state for establishing a special economic zone. But the people were not consulted and did not have any say in the process of decision making. This infuriated the people and led to mass mobilization against state policy, Quickly the state declared that the notice will be withdrawn, but the state had become unreliable to such an extent in the eyes of the people that they did not take its word and virtually cut of the area from rest of the province. They tore down bridges, blockaded roads and declared the area out of bounds for the police and other government agencies. This led to a stand off which culminated in the killing of 14 people (or many more).

Clashes between the police and villagers in Nandigram led to the death of more than 14 people (Photo: PTI)
The question is, why are people, across the length and breadth of the country, losing (or have lost) confidence in the government. The basic reason of course is the shabby treatment meted out to the people by it. And despite all the tall electoral claims of different political parties, little has change in ground realities—or in fact they have taken a turn for the worse. So while the food corporation of India are full to capacity, hunger deaths continue and are becoming endemic in areas, which have no history of them. Peasants are committing suicide, small scale industries are dying and life has become really tough for the urban poor. In such an environment, the government emphasizes on building SEZs, shopping malls and other ‘necessities’ of the assertive middle classes in total ignorance of even the basic demands of the rest of its people.

Moreover, the state has shown a peculiar tendency of frustrating the democratic aspirations of the people by sidelining their peaceful movements, all the while attempting to engage with armed resistance movements. Interestingly, an analysis of armed resistance movements spread over different parts of the country brings a curious fact to the forefront: That most of these movements started out as peaceful, democratic ones only to get converted into what they are today. Also one needs to keep in mind that the police forces, which are entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining law and order, are inefficient at the best and corrupt at the worst. Police posts are considered to be scary places in most of the rural and semi urban places in India. Most people are simply afraid of visiting the police to lodge a complaint because they fear of getting economically exploited.

Access to Justice

Then, there arises a different question as to whether people have recourse to the celebrated judicial process of the country. Firstly, the marginalized people have little or no access to the judiciary. Even if they reach the outer doors of the system, they soon discover their incapacities of bearing the enormous cost of litigation and the fat fees of the advocates. And finally, the courts are highly overburdened with never ending cases dragging on for decades. Thus even a simple case—say harassment by the local authorities—may take something like 20 years. In this whole scenario, so much so, the common man finds out it is better for him (her) to recourse to fate or karma than putting him (her) self to further risk.

Also, the Indian police have never been reputed for being impartial and contrarily known to be easily influenced by anything from money, muscle power of feudal land lords in the countryside to caste-based and communal biases and prejudices. One of the best illustrations would be the Delhi police ‘looking the other way’ when Sikhs were being massacred by rioters in 1984; or more recently in 2002 when the Gujarat police ‘allowed’ the right wing Hindu forces to unleash a chilling spell of terror on the Muslims including butchery and burning people alive, rape, looting and chasing away traumatized survivors from their homes and villages. Similarly, the Supreme Court in a recent verdict convicted 19 Provincial armed constabulary men of the Uttar Pradesh police for killing more than 40 Muslims in cold blood and throwing their bodies into a canal. Under these circumstances it is rather futile to query whether a poor person in need would opt to contact the police or not.

However, over the years, the judiciary has made an about turn in addressing the grievances of the people. Despite being reputed for delivering some really progressive judgments and in turn, paving the way for rule of law, it had taken a few leaps backwards on this tradition in recent years. For instance, it went back on one of its previous judgments regarding not letting the height of Narmada dam increase until all affected people have been properly rehabilitated, and allowed the state to increase the dam height. The Kerala High Court, in 1997, banned the bandhs and declared the ‘forcible’ hartals (strikes) to be illegal while leaving the definition of ‘forcible’ open to interpretations. In the given realities of social life in India, the interpretation is most likely to be carried out by the bureaucracy with—it is needless to say—extremely adverse consequences for the workers. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Later, in 2003 while disposing the petitions against summary dismissal of over 170000 Tamilnadu state government employees, the Supreme Court observed that government employees ”under no circumstances have any fundamental, legal or moral right to go on strike… even the trade unions, who have a guaranteed right for collective bargaining, have no right to go on strike.” While upholding the right of collective bargaining of the workers united under a trade union, the SC assaulted the same rights in no uncertain terms. What is more worrying is the fact that, this judgment goes against the fundamental rights of the working classes to form unions and associations, to collective bargaining and to resort to strike action following the procedures set out by the law. The ILO Convention, of which the government of India is a signatory, recognizes that civil and political rights of public employees are like those of other workers. And the SC order has violated these core rights ensured to workers not by the struggles of the Indian working class, but fought over and won by the International solidarity of the working people, and recognized by international bodies.

The deeper meanings of the recent events can only be deciphered if we read them in this context. And predictably the implications for the Indian state look gloomy. It must be understood, it is state failure—and not the people’s—that is leading to such ugly and gruesome killings and massacres. What is at stake for the Indian state and society is the very foundation of the belief in the democratic ethos and the principles on which the state was formed. Therefore, the Government of India needs to be urged to look into the matter and take corrective steps immediately.

This can begin with an immediate and impartial inquiry into the incidents of Nandigram. Then once the perpetrators are identified, immediate punitive action has to be taken against those who led such a brutal assault on unarmed citizens. Simultaneously, the state should take up all pending cases in different courts where its police and paramilitary forces personnel stand accused. And the state should stop patronizing these guilty officers and instead bring them to justice.

This is the first step that urgently requires to be taken to ensure that the law of the land prevails and the confidence of the people is restored in that law.

Posted on 2007-04-12
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