This Article is From Sep 07, 2016

Raman Singh Is Circumventing A Supreme Court Order That Shamed Him

Rarely has a state government been castigated more severely than Raman Singh's in Chhattisgarh in the 2011 Supreme Court judgement in Nandini Sunder & Otrs. v/s State of Chhattisgarh (WP-205/2007). 

Utterly shocked at Salwa Judum, an "armed civilian vigilante group" given "impunity" by the state government, having "burned and emptied" 650 tribal villages, displaced 35,000 fellow-tribals, and resorted to "mass killings" and "rape", the Supreme Court rejected the Chhattisgarh government's claim that "it has constitutional sanction to perpetrate, indefinitely, a regime of gross violation of human rights in a manner, and by adopting the same modes, as done by Maoist/Naxalite extremists." It also deplored the state's claim of "the right to perpetuate the state's violence against anyone, much less its own citizens, unchecked by law".

The judges declared themselves "aghast at the blindness to constitutional limitations of the State of Chhattisgarh", adding "the primordial value is that it is the responsibility of every organ of the State to function within the four corners of constitutional responsibility. That is the ultimate rule of law." Chhattisgarh's arguments before the court's two-judge bench, they said, would "seriously undermine constitutional values" and "may cause grievous harm to national interests."  

Describing the Chhattisgarh government's "muscular and violent statecraft" as "bleak and miasmic", the court deplored Raman Singh's resort to "the iron fist". It amounted, they said, to establishing a social order "in which any person is treated as suspect" and "anyone speaking for human rights is deemed as suspect". It warned that when "order comes with the price of dehumanization, of manifest injustices of all forms perpetrated against the weak, the poor and the deprived, people revolt."  All this, pronounced the court, points to the "yawning gap between the promise of principled exercise of power in a constitutional democracy and the reality of the situation in Chhattisgarh."     

One would have thought such strictures from the highest judicial authority would have shamed any self-respecting Chief Minister into circumspection, but Raman Singh clearly has the hide of a rhinoceros. He, in cohorts with Rajnath Singh, has determined on circumventing the substance of the court's finding by replacing Salwa Judum with a "Bastariya Battalion". Home Ministry officials briefing journalists on background (see Rahul Tripathi, Economic Times, and Deeptiman Tiwary, Indian Express) have confirmed that the battalion will be raised from precisely the same tribal communities that were sourced by the state government for Salwa Judum. Thus has the Supreme Court's observation been given the go-by: "The young," the court had said, "have literally become cannon fodder in the killing fields of Dantewada and other districts of Chhattisgarh". The Bastariya Battalion is to be deployed in the Naxal-infested districts of Narayanpur, Bijapur, Sukhna and Dantewada. As with Salwa Jadum, tribal casualties are likely to be much higher proportionately than other CRPF casualties because they are likely to be deployed, as the Salwa Judum was, on the frontlines since the Home Ministry briefing said tribals "are better suited to fight in the region".

This is an absurd argument. For whereas there are strict physical parameters relating to height, chest and weight for regular CRPF recruits, all these parameters have been relaxed for Bastariya Battalion tribal recruits. These tribals are bound to be much less physically capable for the tasks that will be imposed on them than the battle-hardened veterans of the CRPF. What the relaxation of norms amounts to is what the Supreme Court described in the Salwa Judum case as "a cynical, and indeed inhuman attitude, that places little or no value on the lives of such youngsters". Moreover, the families of these Bastariya recruits are as liable to be targeted by the Naxals as was the case with Salwa Judum - yet another concern expressed by the Supreme Court.

Technically, the Raman Singh government might argue that this is not a "volunteer" force as was Salwa Judum but regular recruitment to the CRPF. Yet, by adding a Bastariya battalion to the over one hundred battalions already deployed in the area - and that too for decades - is the core of the problem being addressed?

The Supreme Court had underlined that 23 per cent of India's iron ore was located in Dandakaranya besides abundant coal resources. The exploitation of these natural resources constitutes the "development paradigm" for the region. The Supreme Court had quoted extensively from the Expert Committee report of 2008, commissioned by the Planning Commission, which concluded that this development paradigm depends "largely on the plunder and loot of natural resources", involving "gross and inhuman suffering of the displaced and dispossessed", which had led to "countless millions having been condemned to lives of great misery and helplessness."

The Supreme Court backed up these charges with quotes from two well-known economists, Ajay K. Mehra and Amit Bhaduri. Mehra was cited as ruing that "the resultant miseries of the development dichotomy" that the judges described as the "deliberate infliction of misery on large sections of the population" have made them "vulnerable to calls for revolutionary politics". Bhaduri is harsher: what Mehra calls "the sense of disempowerment wrought by a false development paradigm without a human face", Bhaduri calls "developmental terrorism". He writes, "guns for the youngsters among the poor, so that they keep fighting among themselves, seems to be the new mantra from the mandarins of security."

Unable to find their own words to fully express their feelings at these terrible revelations, the judges of the Supreme Court resorted to Joseph Conrad's famous novel, The Heart of Darkness, where at the end, the principal sinner in the gory ivory trade in the Congo dies exclaiming, "the horror, the horror." So is it in all of Dandakaranaya: "The Horror, The Horror"!  

The 2008 Expert Committee had talked of the "corrupt practices of a rent-seeking bureaucracy and rapacious exploitation by the contractors, middlemen, traders and the greedy sectors of the larger society." Mohan Guruswamy of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, in his monograph, The Heart of Our Darkness, which also drew from Joseph Conrad, puts it vividly: "In the vast Central Indian Highlands, the occasional visit of an official invariably means extraction by coercion of what little poor people have. It doesn't just end with a chicken or a goat or a bottle of mahua, it often includes all these and the modesties of the womenfolk." He cites a Citigroup report that says 40 percent of all land acquired for "development" is of the tribals who constitute just over 8 per cent of our population, in consequence of which, says Citigroup, "the Naxalite movement had local support". However, he does not cite the Twelfth Plan papers that confess to 55 percent of the 65 million displaced and dispossessed belonging to the tribal communities. Guruswamy points to bauxite mining that is expected to "displace over one lakh tribals while creating jobs for a mere 400". He calls attention to the Mahanadi Coalfields case where Aftab Alam and Mohanty, JJ, of the Supreme Court held "blinkered" development policies responsible for "fuelling extreme discontent and giving rise to Naxalism and militancy". No wonder the Supreme Court in Salwa Judum squarely pointed to the "amoral political economy that the State endorses, and the resultant revolutionary politics that it necessarily spawns".

Is there then an answer? Yes, there is - and it was provided nearly 70 years ago by the great tribal leader Jaipal Singh Munda, Oxford Blue and President of his College Junior Combination Room, and captain of the Indian hockey team that won the gold at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and who got into the ICS but resigned to devote himself to his people. He said in the Constituent Assembly: "You cannot teach democracy to the tribal people; you have to learn democratic ways from them."

The Provisions of The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 [PESA] ensures the protection and promotion of tribal rights through the devolution of true democracy to tribal habitats. Although this revolutionary legislation was passed unanimously by parliament all of two decades ago, state governments like Chhattisgarh's have been observing the Act mostly in the breach. The record of implementing the Act in letter and spirit has been dismal. If instead of raising "Bastariya battalions" to pit tribal against tribal in the colonial mode of "divide and rule", the governments at the centre and state capitals concerned were to concentrate on effectively devolving functions, finances and functionaries to elected tribal panchayats, Naxalism can be extinguished by providing to tribal panchayats the attractive alternative of well-funded autonomy to the depredations of Naxal tyranny.  

Obviously, this is not possible in the very heart of darkness where the state governments have forfeited any pretense of governance to the Maoists. But there are at least a hundred districts on the periphery of the Naxal heartland where making available directly to the tribal panchayats the thousands upon thousands of crore of development funds to which they are entitled will open to the tribal people a real alternative to Naxalism for elementary social and economic justice. Vice President Hamid Ansari has underlined that "governance is the weak link in our quest for prosperity and equity". PESA offers the substitute of local "self-government", as promised in the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, for the weak and corrupt governance by state bureaucracies now on offer. Guruswamy stresses that we must "distinguish Adivasi aspirations from Maoist intentions" but adds "the problem is that this is beyond the capability of the public administration apparatus." Of course it is, which is why full-scope Panchayati Raj empowerment for our tribals is the surest and swiftest way out of Naxal insurgency. 

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

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