Large swathes of central India are today convulsed in unending cycles of brutal blood-letting, alternately by state authorities and radical left militant formations. A movement that started in Naxalbari in West Bengal four decades back has today penetrated vast impoverished forested regions - but also some more prosperous agricultural tracts - in 125 districts spread across 12 states.
The movement and its repression by the State have engulfed the lives of millions of people in the daily routinisation of brutal violence: of horrific killings, either at the hands of the police or armed cadres of Naxalites, who are usually organised into squads or dalams. People die every other day in police `encounters', assaults on police stations, reprisals, explosions, and murders of alleged informers. In 2006 alone, for instance, the government reported 1509 incidents of violence, in which 272 alleged Naxalites were killed, as were 157 policemen. In addition 521 civilians were eradicated, ordinary people entrapped helplessly in this incessant crossfire.
Climate of fear
The large majority of people whose lives are taken belong to indigent Dalit and tribal communities, and include many idealistic youth and some women. Many policemen killed are also young men, often from dispossessed communities, who have joined the security forces in search of livelihood and protection. The climate of fear is stoked further by State detention for long years of hundreds under terror laws. In addition in the Salwa Judum in Chhatisgarh, government arms tribal people to combat the armed might of the militants, in a kind of out-sourcing of dangerous policing to ordinary tribes-people, recklessly creating a civil war situation.
This ever-spiralling decline into ceaseless bloodshed is even more precipitous today with highly disturbing news reports that some governments are planning a military offensive `to the finish' this winter to crush the Naxalite insurgency, inspired by the military destruction of the LTTE in Sri Lanka. The governments wantonly ignore the lessons of history, of the futility of attempting to crush through the force of the State, struggles that arise from massive historical injustice; and the cataclysmic toll such an enterprise would take of human life and suffering. Meanwhile Naxalites continue powerful daring assaults on the police, targeting even senior officials.
Both sides would do well to heed instead a citizens' enterprise of great ethical significance which was undertaken to attempt to end these cycles of violence and suffering, and to restore the right of peaceful and normal living of common people. A group of citizens of undisputed high moral standing came together in early 1997, convened by S.R. Sankaran, a retired IAS officer who is universally respected for his contributions towards social justice for marginalised people, his personal integrity, humanity and the austerity of his lifestyle. The committee included Kannabiran, President of the People's Union of Civil Liberties, human rights' scholar Hargopal, and others. The committee they constituted expressed its opposition both to state impunity, and to what it described as the impunity of a revolutionary political movement which claims that its struggle is to provide an alternative and just system.
Unnoticed by much of the country, it doggedly persisted for more than nine years to try to restore peace and justice to the troubled districts of Telangana. Their efforts failed ultimately to bring lasting peace. But the process of dialogue with both the state and militants carries important ethical lessons, because the committee unusually applied the same democratic and moral principles in evaluating acts of violence by the State and by revolutionary parties.
The committee was unequivocal, firstly, in its condemnation of the killing of alleged Naxalites by the police in encounters, which it described as `targeted extralegal executions'. It documented unambiguously how the police have developed the `habit' of picking up people from their homes and public places and shooting them dead, sometimes in the vicinity of their own villages. It maintained that the State has shifted its political burden to the police, encouraging them to indulge in what are euphemistically described as `encounters'. These are custodial and targeted killings, extinguishing human life and the right to life itself. These encounter killings are not isolated aberrations or unintended transgressions of law by individual police personnel, but a deliberate systemic response of the State. The governments, particularly the police, believe that in case of encounters - irrespective of the law of the land - there need not be any independent investigation. These encounters `introduce terror as a component of governance and erode its very democratic essence'.
The committee is equally scathing in its condemnation of Naxalite violence, which unleashes indiscriminate violence and terror upon people `rather than on the mobilisation of people for social transformation'. Its strategies include physical liquidation of people, attacks on police stations and targeted killing of police personnel, killing of socalled informers and `coverts', exploding of landmines resulting in large scale deaths, destruction of public property and other forms of arbitrary actions including death threats, or even a `ban' on political parties.
These arbitrary and violent actions of Naxalite parties are seen to contribute to `further brutalise the society and lead to the shrinkage of democratic space'. Often, in public perception, the Naxalite movement has come to essentially connote a confrontation between the police and the Naxalites, each having its agenda of violence. `There is a general public feeling that people are sandwiched between Naxalites and police apparatus.'
The Naxalite groups have responded in writing to appeals issued from time to time by the committee, in fact with far more seriousness than the government. The CPI (ML) People's War declared, for instance, in a letter in Telugu to the committee, that `extremism (democratic struggles of the people) is inevitable in a situation of inadequately addressed social and economic problems'. They felt the committee wrongly equated police violence with Naxalite violence, and `isolated cruelty and violence from people's struggle'. They added: `It is the birth right of people to resist by legal or illegal means, peacefully or by arms, violence and atrocities on people, cruel exploitation of workers, peasants, students, intellectuals, women, minorities, dalit and adivasis by oppressive landlords, big capitalists, high officials, imperialists'. They admitted to what they described as `mistakes' causing suffering to ordinary people, but apologised to the people, and claimed to `correct immediately' these `unintentional mistakes' whenever they occurred.
To the government, the sane advice of the committee is that social peace can be restored and sustained only if justice and dignity is ensured for every person. The State must address the structural violence built into the societal system in regions torn by militancy such as inequality, exploitation and lack of freedom or democratic space. They must strive to strike at the root causes of violent unrest, including deprivation and assaults on land, human dignity, wages, employment, repression and harassment, particularly `encounters' and detention under terror laws.
The committee's humane and impartial pleas to both governments and militants to abjure violence are tragically lost in a wilderness of decades of mutually reinforcing violence. The government continues to act as `the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner' all rolled into one, continuing `extra-judicial killings with impunity'. In so doing, the State itself extinguishes the right to life, and from this there is no recompense. The Naxalites on their part continue to resort to military violence rather than mobilising oppressed masses to resist injustice, and they `attach no sanctity to human life'.
Today there seem none who is willing to heed the gentle and courageous counsel of this citizens' group. Their steady voice has been a lonely one in the brutalised cacophony and tumult of violence in these regions, and their respective supporters nation-wide. The impoverished people in large forested parts of central India seem condemned to continue to negotiate life amidst blood that is spilt everyday.
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