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.

14 thoughts on “On arming citizens to fight insurgents”

  1. Nitin

    Granting the permit by state to “private persons to have fire arms for self protection” also amounts to the same as arming the militia like Salwa Judum. Only difference I see is “how they get the arms”, which really has no consequence to term it as illegible.
    How does the prior become constitutional ?

  2. Nitin,

    In my opinion, the only thing that matters is whether Salwa Judum is under effective command and control of the Indian state. If they are, they cannot be termed a “private militia”. Would the petitioners be happy if the government renamed them “Salwa Judum Special Volunteer Wing” with salary and pension ? Case closed. Nothing to see here.

    The petitioners case seems have no meat on it, IMO :

    1) They must prove that the group is under independent control. Were their recent actions unpredictable ? Do they procure arms from outside agencies (foreign suppliers, theft) independently ? Can the government calibrate their activity ? Do they have other source of funds (extorsion, robbery, counterfeiting) ?

    2) Even if they show signs of independent control, the government can still make the case that they are backing them because the group’s actions are in line with their immediate policy objectives. This is unfortunate because we are backing the lesser of the two evils, the country will then owe Salwa Judum in blood money. They did the dirty work and there will be expectations. That is never a good thing ! It is sad we have come to this, but maybe the ground situation is such that our police cannot cut it. Are we down to this level ?

    I hope better sense prevails. How do we know this group is not the state’s last option ? What could be worse than ditching them after setting them up against a formidable enemy ?

  3. I hope this puts an end to experimental (suicidal) counter insurgency strategies chalked out by lazy policy wonks.

  4. RC,

    I suppose a narrow legality can be established. I think it is against the constitution in the broadest sense. But even if the court finally accepts the government’s position, it still doesn’t make it good policy.

    How do we know this group is not the state’s last option ?

    Well, it can’t be. In fact, this appears to be the lazy option, as Arun points out in comment #3. For instance, it could well be that the entire strategy is wrong: going after the honey bees instead of getting the hive and the queen. More importantly, if the state was weak enough to be unable to hold off the Naxalites by itself, and Salwa Judum creates disincentives for it to improve its own capability, then just how does it hope to disarm the Salwa Judum one day? It’s a win-win for people like Mahendra Karma. It’s bleak for the rest of us.

    It’s can’t be the last option.

  5. I think Nandini Sundar and Ramachandra Guha, who are the main petitioners need to be called out on this. Given their high profile in the media, they ought to have made a stronger case. They havent. The best I have seen is an article about Mahabharata and Maoists/Salwa Judum which left my head reeling for a few hours (sandeepweb had a good post debunking even the Mahabharat angle). Fact is this case, whichever way it turns out has the potential to undermine a vital national interest.

    Your point about organizations like SJ being a lazy option and the built in disincentives for enhancing police capabilities are of course right on the mark. An option might be to raise a new paramilitary division(or battalion) with members of the SJ. There is room for creative options here. These options have more to do with how to tame the beast.

    In any case, too much water has flown under the bridge. The SJ movement cannot be disowned now. If we had other options before SJ, we have very few now.

    Why dont these columnists come up with some other ideas ?

  6. How about forming a police battalion mainly comprising of tribals? This can also partly address the unemployment problem, besides creating a group within them whose interests will lie in co-operating with the state.

  7. RC,

    Exactly. I would see nothing wrong in creating a paramilitary force, under an act of parliament, with well-defined responsibilities and terms of engagement, to take on counterinsurgency. Whether it is composed of local tribals or people from elsewhere in the country is a matter of staffing. As long as the officer wears uniform, and is an arm of the state, it shouldn’t matter where he or she comes from.

  8. Agree with Nitin and Arun. I dont think the SJ was an inevitable eventuality.

    I also dont think we are indebted to them now that they have gone and shed blood *allegedly* in defence of state interests. Such a thinking would excuse offences they have committed and judge those to a different scale than outrages perpetrated by the Maoists.

    Police forces tend to get away with such offences already. Its unacceptable to have private militias doing the same. Its unacceptable to have private militias, in the first place.

    OTOH inducting those members of SJ who are ‘clean’ and dont have any major violations charges against them into a state paramilitary force is a good idea. That would provide some cover to them from Maoist retribution.


  9. I never understood why a special police force as employed by Andhra Pradesh to counter the anti insurgency has been replicated.

  10. All soldiers are but civilians armed with weapons, given a rank and uniform.

    The only thing that separates the Salwa Judum and a paramilitary force is the formalities. So yeah, let the court declare the Judum unconstitutional and let the government raise a paramilitary force from the same Judum. That would be the best possible outcome and something that would happen for good, and something that would be a slap on the face to the petitioners.

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