And who will do the protecting?

Amnesty International sounds like Al Qaeda

Mukul Sharma, of Amnesty International, does the Amnesty International thing in the Hindu. Terror must be countered with justice he writes, which is all very fine. But Mr Sharma is also against special laws that can used to bring terrorists to justice. All he has to say is:

The only way people can be protected — from both governments and suicide bombers — is to treat every single human being as possessing fundamental rights that no government, group or individual may ever justifiably take away. Human rights are grounded in fundamental values that create ‘no go areas’ — acts that one human being must never do to another. [The Hindu]

And who can disagree with that? But Mr Sharma doesn’t say who it is that should do the protecting, the government or the suicide bombers? If indeed the government should do this, it must bring the terrorists to justice, for which it not only needs laws, but needs to carry out investigations today, not at an ideal time when law enforcement agencies are perfect.

But then, Mr Sharma comes out against forceful investigations because of “the actions of certain groups and individuals, entire communities are being viewed with suspicion…If whole communities are antagonised and alienated by the security forces using terror, aren’t those communities more likely to respond with supporting the use of violence?” That’s a series of specious arguments—it is not reasonable to contend that a government of a multi-religious state can investigate and fight terrorism born of Islamic radicalism without antagonising a proportion of the Muslim community. Defeating Khalistani terrorism involved antagonising many Sikhs. Fighting ULFA antagonises many Assamese. Fighting LTTE antagonises some Tamils. The question Mr Sharma must answer is whether the cause of human rights is served by setting aside the pursuit of justice just because it would cause this antagonism?

The second specious argument, and a more egregious one, is that it is somehow justifiable for “antagonised and alienated” communities to respond with violence. So just how different is Amnesty International from Al Qaeda, then? “If governments abandon the rule of law and use methods of terror,” Mr Sharma asks, “then won’t groups fighting governments feel justified in using methods of terror themselves?” That’s an explicit apology for terrorism and political violence, disguised though it is as a rhetorical question. Neither jihadi groups nor Naxalites really need external justification for their violence. Armed struggle is a core belief. So passing off terrorism as a “reaction” to some failing of the government is wrong, and even if were right, cannot be morally justified.

The case for human rights is built on a bedrock of morality, so it is not least paradoxical that an organisation claiming to defend those rights can throw up arguments based on vacuous morality.

Related posts: After terrorists, their apologists strike

Defending Salwa Judum

Has anyone articulated how the citizen’s militia will be disbanded?

Prakash Singh, a distinguished police officer and a member of an expert group set up by the Planning Commission to study the Naxalite problem, dissents from the group’s conclusions and argues that the Salwa Judum was a “spontaneous movement expressing the resentment of the tribals against the Naxalites’ interference with their social customs, cultural practices and economic interests.”

Mr Singh, who is both the author of a book on the Naxalite movement and has tirelessly pushed police reforms since his retirement, is a credible commentator. His opinion must be taken seriously.

This blog, however, disagrees with his view. Individuals bearing arms for self-defence, or even isolated village defence committees in remote areas are one thing: organising these units into a larger corporate entity, or indeed a “movement”, is quite another. Organisations once formed develop a life and interests of their own, and are almost impossible to wind down and demobilise, especially if they are outside the formal control of the state. As Mr Singh himself admits (Salwa Judum’s) “camps should have been wound up within a year or two and the tribals encouraged to go back to their villages. That unfortunately did not happen.”

Mr Singh has a point when he argues that Salwa Judum is a useful instrument in the fight against the Naxalite insurgency. But in the medium- to long-term, it is likely to create additional problems, whether or not the Naxalites are defeated.

Three cheers for the Delhi High Court

Its verdict should halt the tendency to use the law to flaunt competitive intolerance

Excerpts from the verdict of a single-judge bench of the Delhi High Court (Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul):

In a free and democratic society, tolerance is vital. This is true especially in large and complex societies like ours where people with varied beliefs and interests mingle..

It is very unfortunate that the works of any artist today who have tried to play around with nudity have come under scrutiny. These artists have had to face the music, making them think twice before exhibiting their work of art.

India’s new Puritanism, practised by a largely ignorant crowd in the name of Indian spiritual purity, is threatening to throw the nation back into the Pre-Renaissance era. Criminal justice system should not be used as an easy recourse to ventilate against a creative act.

Today, each painting has a story to narrate. Art to every artist is a vehicle for personal expression. An aesthetic work of art has the vigour to connect to an individual sensually, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

The test for judging a work of art should be that of an ordinary man of common sense and not that of a hyper-sensitive one. Therefore looking at a piece of art from the painter’s perspective becomes very important, especially in the context of the nude.

Art and authority never had a difficult relationship, until recently…Our greatest problem today is fundamentalism, the triumph of the letter over the spirit. [IE]

Thus bench disposed off a slew of charges against M F Hussain (See Retributions). The plaintiffs will probably take their intolerance to the Supreme Court, but Justice Kaul’s judgement applies the brakes on the march of competitive intolerance. The big challenge, of course, is to make the ordinary man less hyper-sensitive. This judgement helps.

(We are trying to get hold of the full text of what looks like a very well-composed judgement.)

Update: Read Sandeep’s view, because it’s different.

A lesson in statecraft, for Mr Varadarajan

Nepal is Nepal, and India is, well, India

“If the Indian Maoists have something to learn from their Nepali comrades,” Siddharth Varadarajan argues, “the same is true of the Indian establishment as well. While Nepal’s erstwhile ruling parties are building peace with their Maoists, India is stuck with the disastrous Salwa Judum.”

Now the use of Salwa Judum by Chattisgarh is wrong, and is the most obvious indicator of the UPA government’s failure to develop a cohesive strategy towards subduing the Naxalite movement. But it is also important to remember that Salwa Judum is a relatively new phenomenon (India’s Naxalites have been around for almost four decades) and is restricted to just one state. So to equate India’s long war against the Naxalite movement is more misinformation than analysis. Mr Varadarajan ignores the anti-Naxalite strategies adopted in other states and at other times. For instance, under Chandrababu Naidu’s chief-ministership, the Andhra Pradesh police almost broke the Naxalites’ back. That advantage was lost not because the use of force by state authorities didn’t work. It was lost because the Congress Party decided to lower the heat and attempt negotiations. The Maoists used the opportunity to regroup and before long, returned to their armed struggle.

But what of Mr Varadarajan’s lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India? Well, he argues

“If the Indian establishment wants the Maoists to give up their armed struggle and take part in elections like their Nepali comrades, it will have to rely on more than political osmosis. For the Nepali ‘model’ is not just about the Maoists adapting creatively to changes in the national and international arena; it is equally about the ‘bourgeois’ parties there demonstrating a degree of statesmanship that has so far been completely absent in their counterparts south of the border.

Indeed, so backward is our political culture in relation to Nepal’s that instead of seeking ways of peacefully ending the naxalite insurgency, the Government of India has actually fuelled a new civil war.

In Nepal, the political parties and the Maoist rebels realised that the civil war in their country would not be resolved militarily. The king was the only one who failed to recognise this reality and paid the price for his folly. In India, however, despite the military stalemate which prevails, both the establishment and the Maoists continue to believe in the supremacy of arms.” [The Hindu]

Mr Varadarajan, like some other people who write in the opinion pages of the Hindu betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Indian state. He fails to understand the fundamental difference between legitimacy of a democratic republic and that of a sometimes-absolute, sometimes-constitutional monarchy. Even if one were to ignore the immense differences in the state’s hard capacity—in the ability to muster up economic and military resources—the government of India enjoys a moral strength (of course, the Naxalites and their apologists will deny this) that no government of Nepal ever had. [See There are alternatives to Naxalism]

In other words, unlike Nepal, the Indian state won’t simply lie down and surrender. Here Mr Varadarajan would do well to learn some lessons from Indian history: in the end, it is the insurgents who cry Momma. The second lesson for Mr Varadarajan is that the democratic nature of the Indian state allows these militarily defeated insurgents to honourably enter mainstream politics.

Indeed, Mr Varadarajan might discover the ultimate lesson of statecraft were he to examine how Nepal’s Maoists came to power. Narratives of Indian pusillanimity apart, does he really believe that Pushpa Kumar Dahal would be so close to political power, and legitimacy, if the ‘Indian establishment’ hadn’t allowed it?

It is not as if negotiations haven’t been tried in India. They have. That they have not led to the Naxalites dropping dogmatic armed struggle and entering mainstream politics tells you where the problem lies. It is understandable that Mr Varadarajan is heady with vicarious triumphalism due to the success of Nepal’s Maoists. He should restrict himself to savouring the moment. As for lessons in statecraft, there’s a lot that Maoists—on either side of the India-Nepal border—have to learn.

The OBC reservations verdict and the national interest

A step on the road towards equality, merit and a quest for excellence

Excerpts from Mukul Asher’s DNA op-ed piece on the Supreme Court verdict on OBC reservations*:

The society’s need for competence and employable graduates has been balanced with provision of educational access to the OBCs.

The judgement of the Supreme Court (should) be respected in both letter and spirit. Those who are now trying to subvert the letter and spirit of the verdict should receive severe social and political disapproval.

India’s national interests are best served by ordering our society around equality, merit and a quest for excellence. The Supreme Court’s judgment should not be viewed as an end in itself, but rather as an intermediate step towards this goal. Continue reading “The OBC reservations verdict and the national interest”

Niall Ferguson’s review of Terror and Consent

Fight hard, but according to the rules

Niall Ferguson has an excellent review of Phillip Bobbitt’s new book, Terror and Consent in the New York Times. Readers will find Bobbitt’s arguments on the need for a constitution-circumscribed but aggressive counter-terrorism strategy similar to The Acorn’s:

Bush’s instinct was not wrong. In this war, we do need pre-emptive detention of suspected terrorists; we do need a significant increase of surveillance, particularly of electronic communications; we do need, in some circumstances, to use coercive techniques (short of torture) to elicit information from terrorists. The administration’s fatal mistake was its failure to understand that these things could be achieved by appropriate modifications of the law. By doing what indeed was needed, but doing it outside the law, the administration undermined the legitimacy of American policy at home as well as abroad. Bobbitt is emphatic: all branches of government must act in conformity with the Constitution and the law.

To summarize: Bobbitt believes that there is a real war against terror; that civil liberties as previously understood may need to be curtailed to win it; that we must nevertheless fight it without violating our commitment to the rule of law; and that the United States cannot win it alone. This is certainly not a combination of positions calculated to endear Bobbitt either to the left or the right in the United States today. [NYT]

Bobbitt’s context is US foreign policy. But these arguments are largely applicable to constitutional democracies faced with having to fight wars against “networks” of terrorists and insurgents. The state cannot allow its legitimacy to erode even as it takes its fight to the “terrorists”.

The verdict on reservations and its implications

Five year reviews and creamy layer exclusions

Lex blogger Ninad Laud was at the Supreme Court when it gave its verdict on the reservations for OBCs in higher education. Head over to his blog for the details.

The implications of the verdict, he says, are:

Caste based reservations are to stay in educational institutions but minus the creamy layer. The silver lining in this verdict is the scope for review every 5 years. Thus whenever (if and when) we have the political will, a difference could be made to make these reservations meaningful rather than rendering them a mere political gimmick.

Let’s hope the political will does emerge some day!

The power of the taboo

Politics ‘R Us, or how the constitution can be painted in Congress Party’s colours

Even the strongest believers in constitutionalism and rule of law will concede that in the end, the system is only as good as the willingness of the people to respect the norms that form its ‘spirit’.

One of those norms is the taboo: the notion that some things are just not done. Indeed, in many instances the taboo is the only latch that keeps the floodgates of wholesale perversion firmly shut.

So in the long list of the UPA government’s damaging acts, undermining the dignity of high constitutional officers is one of the most significant. The elevation of a dubious political retainer to the position of the president of the republic, the recycling of S M Krishna, from a defeated politician to state governor—an apolitical constitutional office—and back into the partisan fray of electoral politics, and now, the appointment of a former chief election commissioner as a minister breaks many taboos. The floodgates have been jerked open.

The Congress Party’s attempt to use the Election Commission for its partisan ends is extremely dangerous. M S Gill might well have been the chief election commissioner a decade ago, but no one can deny that the implicit promise of future rewards can act as an incentive. The mere perception that election commissioners are partisan not only undermines public faith in the electoral system but makes electoral officials more susceptible to pressure from politicians. Mr Gill’s appointment reinforces the serious misgivings caused by the presence of Navin Chawla— a person declared “unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others”—at the Election Commission.

In terms of long-term damage, the UPA government has done much worse that V P Singh’s Janata Dal government of the late 1980s. The bad news is that it still has some months to go.

On arming citizens to fight insurgents

The battle in the Supreme Court

The correct way to challenge dubious government policies is to take them to court. So the citizens who filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against the Chattisgarh government’s use of an armed militia to take on the Naxalites did the right thing.

The case is still in progress, but the court’s early comments—well publicised by the media—were noteworthy.

“The allegation is that the state is arming private persons. You can deploy as many police personnel or armed forces to tackle the menace. But, if private persons, so armed by the state government, kill other persons, then the state is also liable to be prosecuted for abetting murder” [TOI]

The court is on the right track. Armed militias like Salwa Judum are not only unconstitutional but actually inimical to internal security. They should go.

The government’s defence has been injudicious so far: it was wholly unnecessary to bring in the bogey of an adverse judgement undermining the strategy of using village defence committees (VDCs) in terrorist/insurgent affected areas. For there is a difference between VDCs and armed militias.

The difference lies both in orientation and organisation. VDCs are about empowering citizens to defend themselves and their properties. They are localised units, small in size and with limited capability. Salwa Judum on the other hand has offensive capabilities, an organisational structure with paid cadres and covers large areas. VDCs are more akin to security guards than to armed militias. The government’s counsel would do well not to conflate Salwa Judum with VDCs. (And ensure that VDCs don’t become Salwa Judums)

According to the government, the allegations against Salwa Judum are overstated. That may well be true. It is likely that the court will appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate into the allegations. Yet, it would be far more prudent for the state to conduct ‘flag operations’, demonstrating that the state is capable of delivering governance. For whether the state cedes ground to Salwa Judum or to the Naxalites, it is the state that loses.

Today’s dharma is the Constitution

Where The Acorn interprets the Mahabharata

Continuing the discussion on Naxalism, Gautam Sen points to an op-ed by Nandini Sundar, a sociologist from the Delhi School of Economics, and a member of the Independent Citizen’s Initiative (ICI) that investigated the situation in Chattisgarh in July 2006. Similar to the position the ICI takes in its report, Dr Sundar’s op-ed equates violence conducted by state authorities and violence conducted by non-state authorities (Maoists and the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum militia). This is perhaps a pacifist middle-ground position, but is untenable as an organising principle for a democratic nation. It has been rejected by the Maoists themselves: Mupalla Lakshmana Rao (Comrade ‘Ganapathy’), the Maoist chief, retorted that “those who imagine themselves to be impartial referees in class war and try to set the rules equally for both sides will ultimately end up as apologists for the oppressors, in spite of their good intentions and sincere attitude.”

Dr Sundar attempts to find a basis for the “middle-ground” position by taking recourse to the Mahabharata and codes of conduct according to dharma.

If both must fight, ignoring saner counsel, let me draw their attention to another aspect of the Mahabharata. As Matilal points out, it was indeed a dharmyuddh, but only because both parties were expected to observe certain laws of dharma, or codes of conduct in war. [New Indian Express]

Now, quite clearly, it is untenable to suggest that the Indian state allow the literal Hindu dharma to guide its behaviour. Beyond a literal interpretation though, the idea that the actions of the king and his subjects are circumscribed by a code of conduct, or dharma, in its contemporary form simply indicates that the government and citizens are subject to the Constitution. And the Constitution empowers the government to use force—under laws, checks and balances. It forbids others, for instance the Maoists, from doing so.

The correct interpretation of the Mahabharata is that the government must behave according to the Constitution (and disband the Salwa Judum), but also, defeat the Maoists who, by rejecting the Constitution, are on the side of adharma.