Periodically, when the state of affairs in India looks really bleak, something happens that restores our faith in humanity, the government (!), and the democratic process.
Last Wednesday was one such day. The Supreme Court of India decreed that the Salwa Judum, a special police force created by the government, armed and given licence to kill supposed Naxals or Maoists (extremist forces as per government definition) is illegal.
Like the war against terrorism, the war against Maoists has resulted in the government being able to do almost anything it wants to end the Maoist menace. Again, the Maoists range from idealistic young men and women who joined this underground group out of sheer desperation and anger at the state of the poor around them, to cold blooded killers who kill, rape and terrorize ordinary villagers in the name of Naxalism. A Google search will give you the history of Naxalism which started in the 1960s in a tiny village called Naxalbari in West Bengal. But that’s another story.
To put it simplistically, these people, the Naxalites, decided that peaceful means would not bring on the revolution, so they embarked on a journey of violence, ostensibly to get the government to give to the poor what was rightfully theirs. In West Bengal in the 1960s, thousands of young, bright, idealistic people, mostly students, joined the Naxalites hoping to bring on the revolution and end the 20-odd years of corruption and misrule which did not bring the promises offered by an Independent India.
The Marxist government then in power cracked down on them ruthlessly. Thousands of young people were butchered. Gandhi, when he used non-violence, was a brilliant strategist. He knew that violence would give the enemy the excuse to eliminate freedom fighters. We didn’t have a chance in hell, if we attempted to fight the might of the British Empire with guns. That merely gives the enemy a weapon to eliminate the terrorists – ‘insurgents’ was the term used in the 1940s.
It happened in Sri Lanka, where the world turned a blind eye because everyone thought terrorism and the Tamil Tigers had to be stopped. The war against terror in the US is the same.
The Naxalite violence frightened ordinary citizens. So although thousands of mostly young men died brutally or with bullets in their backs in fake police ‘encounters’, the average middle class citizen shrugged helplessly. What could the government do in the face of armed violence? Police officers were being killed by Naxalites every day.
The resurgence of Naxalism in the last decade led to a similar situation in central India. I wrote in New Internationalist about Binayak Sen, a medical doctor jailed for fighting for justice for poor adivasis in Chhatisgarh, central India. Binayak had highlighted police atrocities against adivasis. The government, fed up with liberals who criticized anti-Naxal operations, decided to make an example of Binayak.
Finally, after over a year of a huge international campaign against his incarceration, Binayak was released. He had written articles against the creation of the Salwa Judum, where young adivasis were armed and asked to become vigilantes to report on ‘suspicious’ activities and Naxal sympathizers. It turned adivasi against adivasi and gave young men licence to shoot people on the slightest pretext. Revenge killings began, petty scores could be settled with guns, women were raped, abuse, torture, custodial beatings, absolute mayhem ensued.
The Indian Supreme Court verdict has vindicated Binayak and the thousands of protesters who tried to stop the carnage that was going on in the name of anti-Maoist operations.
There was a second heartwarming piece of news yesterday. Another Supreme Court statement criticizing the authorities ‘for taking advantage of “the colonial law” on land acquisition to divest farmers of their farmland, benefiting the rich and paying a pittance to the common man’. This astonishing observation from the highest court in the land gives activists, lawyers and human rights defenders a handle to fight the large scale takeover of poor people’s land by multinationals and huge corporate interests.
Many activists and human rights’ defenders were in despair, fearing the beginning of a total police state. But with the new Supreme Court verdicts it looks like there’s still scope for hope.