The grammar of anarchy challenges the idea of India

The right to protest does not imply that the protests are right

K Subrahmanyam’s piece warning against giving in to separatist demands makes a very important point—the tendency to tolerate and appease those who take to the streets to press their demands.

But the challenge facing India is whether we try to set right our governance and improve it or yield to the protesters. Disruption is being made part of India’s political culture by most of our political parties.

Not only Kashmir, but violent agitations elsewhere pose a challenge to the idea of India. The country has to seek a comprehensive strategy to deal with this challenge. Yielding to the Kashmiri secessionists is not a solution. It would be the end of the concept of India. [TOI]

Once the ‘grammar of anarchy’ is accepted as legitimate, accommodating the demands of those who use it—whether it is the Gujjars of Rajasthan, the Amarnath Samiti of Jammu or the Communists in various parts of the country—becomes merely a matter of rationalisation. Any number of principles can be trotted out for the purpose. Shouldn’t those who support yielding to separatist demands in Kashmir also support reservations as demanded by the Gujjars and oppose reservations as demanded by Youth For Equality? Does drawing the bigger, louder, angrier, more violent crowd help reconcile such opposing demands?

This is more than just about Jammu & Kashmir. It’s about the model that Indians accept as the way to reconcile the diverse interests of a diverse population. Mobs, general strikes and public demonstrations might be legitimate means for citizens to express their opinions. But this does not mean that society—and certainly not the government—should accept demands made in this manner. Here the media deserves a share of the blame: the profusion of media outlets has encouraged the tendency of “camera-friendly” agitations—remember Rage Boy—which in turn are blown out of proportion by breathless on-scene reporters and shouting anchors.

Related Link: The inaugural editorial of Pragati; and Harsh Khare calls for “a fundamentalist belief in the curative power of Indian democracy” (linkthanks Anand Sampath).

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

There are alternatives to Naxalism

…and armed struggle is blocking out conventional political movements

The recent post and op-ed on Naxalites and human rights sparked a good debate. It is also a timely and important one. Yesterday, Gautam Sen posted a longish entry on his blog responding to some of the issues raised last week. It is a well-composed post, not least because it reserves such delectable phrases as “the laptop bombardiers for India Shining” to describe Offstumped, and just perhaps, The Acorn. While Yossarin will certainly love that description, Mr Sen can rest assured that the only “alignment” between the Indian National Interest and the Nixon Center is on Realism in international affairs. [And ironically, Realism suggests that there are no permanent “alignments” between nations, only permanent interests.]

Mr Sen correctly notes that the main issue is about the state’s “normative legitimate monopoly on violence”. He then goes on to ask why the State has this monopoly and what kinds of violence can it employ. These questions have unambiguous answers. First, the State has the monopoly over violence as part of a grand contract between citizens—who give up some of their individual freedom in order to enjoy the security (a public good) that the State provides. Without security and law & order, society follows the ‘rule of the jungle’, matsya-nyaya, or law of the fish, in Ancient Indian parlance [1, 2]. The Indian State’s monopoly over violence, therefore, safeguards equality and creates the necessary conditions for human development. Morally, the nature of the State is important in the context of the monopoly over violence, but we are dealing with India, a constitutional democracy. Yes it’s imperfect, except for the alternatives.

Second, what kinds of violence can it employ? Only those authorised by the Constitution and the laws that follow from it. But what if it exceeds its brief? Well, both unconstitutional laws and unconstitutional acts by state officials can and should be challenged in court. And such challenges are fairly common in the Indian context. Mr Sen’s feeling that “Pai doesn’t want to constrain the hands of the state in the exercise of its legitimate right to violence” is misplaced. It may be that he didn’t notice the condemnation of the extra-constitutional militia and the restrictions on press freedom—in the post, in the op-ed and in the link to March 2006 post. “In principle” The Acorn argued two years ago, “maintenance of law and order is the government’s responsibility. It cannot outsource back to the citizens what citizens outsourced to it in the first place…It is naive to think that a society, especially one outside the mainstream, will be able to (turn) swords into ploughshares on its own, or that the government will be able to persuade it to do so. Tribal militias may show effective results in the short-term. But in the longer term, they are likely to become part of a larger problem.”

Mr Sen then goes on to ask why “Pai never (concerns) himself with what causes the violence, either by the state, or by non-state actors?” On the contrary, Pai does, perhaps obsessively. But he does not accept explanations that suggest that a “rape victim, dispossessed tribal or bullied villager” will automatically join an armed movement against the state. Only an extreme degree of frustration causes people to resort to violence. And even then, the violence is local and targeted against immediate perpetrators of injustice. It takes something else to mobilise this into an “armed struggle” against the state. For someone who claims he does not support the Maoists, it is strange that Mr Sen cannot see the difference between local disaffection, even violence; and people’s war.

It is from this point onwards in Mr Sen’s post that the moral relativism and moral equivalence begins to creep in. In a bizarre rhetorical question, he asks “But from whom would you reasonably expect a greater responsibility in upholding law and order—the state, or those who fight it?” We should expect no responsibility in upholding law & order from the Naxalites, and entirely by the state. Not for a single instant have I expected otherwise. But that’s not the issue. The point I made was that human rights activists must be alive to the context.

Activists who criticise only the state and spare the Maoists cannot be taken seriously. But those who “abhor violence of all kinds – both by Naxalites and the state” are freeriders at best and hypocrites at worst: for they use the very security that the state provides (through its monopoly over violence) to condemn it. It is entirely possible for reasonable people to agree that the methods used by the state are wrong, but it is entirely another matter for us to condemn the state for using force to ensure internal security. Does Mr Sen not know that “armed struggle” is not merely a tactic for the Naxalites, but central to their dogma? They differ from your garden-variety Communists in the sense that they believe violence is the only way. Say hello to Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

It is in his final sentence that Mr Sen unambiguously justifies Naxalism: “so while I find the methods of the maoists morally abhorrent because they cause violence and suffering, I wonder what one is supposed to do when the institutional or legal alternatives to violence are so weak, scarce and ineffective?” Mr Sen either lacks imagination or is fatally seduced by Maoism, for he somehow cannot see alternatives. He makes two immense leaps of logic: first, that those with grievances must resort to violence, and second, that the violence must take the form of a mandatory armed revolution. This, in a country like India, which demonstrated that non-violence can defeat a superpower. This, in a country like India, where elected dictatorships were brought down by electoral politics and non-violent struggle. This, in a country like India, where leaders like EV Ramaswamy Naicker and Mayawati have demonstrated how conventional political mobilisation can upturn the status quo. [Also this, in a country like India, where not a single armed struggle has actually succeeded.]

If Mr Sen is genuinely concerned about the oppressed he would do well to realise that it is the Naxalites and their uncompromising insistence on violence that is standing in the way of democratic political mobilisation. As long as it is the Naxalites that mobilise popular disaffection, and not conventional political parties, the people are condemned to their oppression. Surely, right thinking people like Mr Sen would not want that?