By Pulapre Balakrishnan
July 05, 2017
The state’s association with terror — in mob lynchings or in extortion — is not compatible with freedom
Over a century ago, an Indian subject living in London wrote a pamphlet that was to become a rallying point for India’s nationalists. Dadabhai Naoroji’s Poverty and un-British rule in India was not merely an indictment of economic imperialism but also served to call the bluff on the claim that the British Empire was necessary to ensure fairness in the governance of an India misgoverned by its native rulers.
His suggestion was that British rule in India could hardly be deemed fair if it was associated with a drain of wealth engineered by the colonial state. Two sets of events that have taken place in India recently point to a state that continues to remain at odds with the aspirations of most Indians. Both involve death of our fellow citizens in which the state is implicated at least indirectly. That the state can be so placed leaves us to ponder the democracy we actually have. Only, unlike Naoroji’s salvo against the colonial state, today we would want to engage with ours in order to ensure that it is fit for a democracy.
Terror, Within And Without
Most of us seem to have an idea of what we mean when we utter ‘the T-word’. It unambiguously refers to attempts to destabilise if not actually destroy India from the outside. It is this conception of terrorism that the Prime Minister employed when, on his most recent trip to the United States, he teamed up with its President to declare a commitment to fight global terrorism. We may query the wisdom of aligning India with a United States whose historical role vis-à-vis terrorism is dubious. U.S. foreign policy incubated the Taliban, which spread terror in the name of Islam, and rained terror on Iraqi children in the name of keeping the world safe from weapons of mass destruction. However, it cannot be doubted that India faces the threat of terror from outside its borders. ‘26/11’ is only the most egregious instance of this. Then, armed thugs had gone about massacring innocent Indians in public spaces in Mumbai. To characterise, as some do, the horror this had evoked across the country as some reactionary nationalism is to miss the threat such terror holds out to the ‘Idea of India’, at its core a vision of diverse people living in harmony.
India though is also besieged by terrorism emanating from within its borders, and this needs to be addressed with at least as much urgency as that which Prime Minister Narendra Modi brings to the issue of the external threat to India. Two forms of this may be earmarked, one more recent and highly visible and the other centuries old and honed to perfection. Ending both would require addressing how the machinery of government functions here.
Over the past two years or so we have seen a rising tide of violence, mainly in northern India, against Dalits and Muslims. This has revolved around the treatment of the cow. Indians have been physically attacked by rampaging mobs accusing them of storing beef or transporting cows for slaughter. Upon this excuse, Dalits have been assaulted and Muslims actually killed. Finally, on June 28, aroused citizens across the country gathered to protest against this violence under the banner ‘Not In My Name’. It is the most significant protest against intolerance that we have witnessed so far and appears to have had success, for the very next day the Prime Minister remarked in a speech made at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad that individuals had no right to kill in the name of Gau Bhakti. He had gone on to add that Mahatma Gandhi would not have approved of their action.
A Weak Response
Surely the latter is a little naïve in that the gau rakshaks represent a strand of thought that believes Gandhi emasculated Hinduism in whose name they themselves now act. The Prime Minister’s response to the terrorising of Dalits in Gujarat and the killing of Muslims across north India is far too weak in relation to the negation of democracy that this violence represents. It is expected of government to protect citizens from assault by fascist forces and he should mobilise the government machinery to do so. That law and order is a State subject is not an excuse and in any case most of this violence is taking place in States ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party. It is clear that the civil administration code in India sufficiently empowers the district-governing authority to deal with the situations related to mob lynching. As vigilantism, often enacted while the police stand by watching, is completely unacceptable in a democracy, one would expect the government to outline in Parliament what it intends to do to eliminate it.
Terrorism of Extortion
Meanwhile in southern India, we have a glimpse of the Indian state in an avatar different from that of a passive observer of murder. It is one of those in charge of its levers using their position in ways that can cause the death of citizens. In Kerala in late June, a farmer was found hanging within the premises of a village office in Kozhikode district. Piecing together entries in a suicide note and the statements of relatives and neighbours, we know the following: For some time the farmer, Kavilpurayidathil Joy, had been trying to pay the taxes due on his land. The village office was refusing to accept it. For him, evidence of taxes paid was the proof required to either pledge or sell his land, which he needed to do quite urgently in order to repay debt.
One version is that the village office was unable to accept the tax as the title to the land itself was under dispute, the property being forest land, thus rendering the private possession of it illegal. But this account makes a mockery of the fact that tax on the same property had been accepted earlier. An interpretation of the stance of the representatives of the state, who constitute the village office, is that the farmer was being harassed for a bribe in return for their registering the payment. This account gains credibility when considered along with the public’s perception that the Revenue Department in Kerala is among its most corrupt. Note that the farmer did not go quietly and in despair. He chose to hang himself in the premises of the village office to register his protest at the injustice meted out to him by the state. An almost similar incident had occurred only weeks before in the State’s south when a woman, frustrated in her attempts to have a property transfer acknowledged by the authorities, attempted to immolate herself in a government office.
It is significant that these instances have been recorded in Kerala, a State praised for its record of human development and presently ruled by a communist party. When the government, with which the first point of contact for a farmer is the village office, causes mental agony for the citizen by denying him the opportunity to discharge his obligations, it is tantamount to terrorism. India cannot be deemed to be a democracy so long as the agents of state can generate insecurity among the people by the threat of punitive action if they are not extended gratification.
In the seventieth year of India’s Independence, we must recognise that the machinery of government as we know it came into existence to ring-fence plunder by the East India Company. Its association with terrorism, indirectly in the case of the mob lynchings or directly in the case of extortion, is not compatible with freedom. India’s state needs to be governed. To paraphrase our President, we can’t be vigilant enough.
Pulapre Balakrishnan is an economist