People’s right to dissent does not mean taking the law into their hands| Analysis

The capital’s worst riots in decades have now mercifully been contained, albeit with the dreadful loss of dozens of lives. It can hardly be coincidental that after simmering under the surface for two months, amid sporadic incidents, violence suddenly flared on the day that United States (US) President Donald Trump visited Delhi. It is another matter that the visit proved to be a big success, with significant progress in the bilateral relationship of the world’s two largest democracies.

Worryingly, even in such circumstances, conflicting, partisan narratives continue to prevail, when what is desperately needed is objectivity and restraint, but also clear red lines and firm, resolute enforcement of those. But that is easier said than done.

While it is easy to criticise Delhi Police, their predicament is worth pondering over. First, there is the fatigue factor of having had to continually be on edge during two months of protests, during which they were repeatedly attacked with stones, not to mention shot at and had acid thrown on them.

Next, whether they chased stone pelters from outside Jamia Millia Islamia into the university’s library, or refrained from going inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus when vandals went on a rampage there, they faced opprobrium. Third, in this age of heightened alertness to potential human rights accusations, their dilemma in choosing between stern proactive steps, and waiting for the general public to accept the need for a crackdown, must be a tricky path to navigate.

It is no exaggeration to say that the police were being battered physically and psychologically from all sides. In the meantime, while the Supreme Court (SC) refused to intervene in public interest litigations (PILs) against the police action at Jamia, saying the maintenance of law and order was the first priority, it was far more ambiguous on the extended agitation at Shaheen Bagh.

The SC commented that agitators did not have an inherent right to blockade roads and inconvenience the public. But it declined to pass an order, leaving it to the police to decide what to do, while reserving the option to decide later if they took the right decision. As the agitation carried on, the court even sent out mediators instead of pronouncing judgment. Finally, with many of their ranks injured and one stoned to death, it should hardly be a surprise if the police were demoralised and indecisive.

One aspect that stood out during the past weeks was the apparent polarisation in the media. When some journalists perceived to be sympathetic to the government were manhandled by protesters at Shaheen Bagh, not all in their fraternity condemned it. But that sad situation came full circle in recent days when some among those considered anti-establishment also faced physical assault at the hands of another set of violent protesters.

Similarly, incendiary statements from the Shaheen Bagh protesters, activists, celebrities, as well as several politicians from around the nation yielded partisan responses. This tribalism, of responding to every development through an “us vs them” prism is, of course, not unique to India. And although more vociferously alleged by those on the Left against their opponents, it reigns across the political spectrum. In fact, in recent decades, it has become the norm in democracies around the globe.

Which is why President Trump’s India visit saw both politicians and some in the media, in both India and the US, react in noticeably partisan terms. Sadly, even India’s largest opposition party, which had itself prioritised this relationship when in government, turned critical of the Trump visit. And for no good reason, from an Indian perspective, other than the chemistry he seems to have with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. The more that the PM has grown in stature, the more some seem determined to oppose him at any cost, without regard to principles or consequences. Nothing else can explain their rabid opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA, the principle of which has been espoused by every major Indian leader from Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh, the last non-BJP prime minister.

It is cynical when most political opponents of Modi privately acknowledge that the CAA itself neither discriminates nor poses any threat to any Indian citizen, of any religion. Some do have objections to the possibility of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), although there is as yet no formal proposal for it. If there were to be one, they could, of course, oppose it, go to court, make it an election issue, and even agitate against it.

But the anti-CAA agitation, which has deliberately misled many Muslims into believing they would be disenfranchised, is misguided at best, and malevolent at worst. Of course, all of us have the right to dissent. But that dissent either must not include taking the law into our hands, such as vandalising public property, blocking public roads, and assaulting people, or we must concede that our opponents have just as much right to do the same. It is time thinking Indians stood on principles, and not on personalities, likes and dislikes.

Naxalism in India

Article Title:”The soil isn’t coloured red”

The coyness with which Indian politicians desist from publicly describing Naxalites as terrorists is telling. But ask them privately,as I have of many,and a surprisingly large number of them have no compunction in saying that “encounters are the only way to deal with them.These anonymous endorsements for dispensing summary justice by way of staged encounters where police and paramilitary forces are encouraged to gun down suspects in cold blood also speak volumes about political correctness in the largest democracy on earth.

India has long been called a soft state when it comes to taking hard headed decisions in the national interest that is,taking those decisions in time,well before years of festering brings the country to the brink of calamity. After years of the central government pretending that Naxalism was a state level problem,we are now at that brink nationally. In large swathes of the country today,the writ of the state has been replaced by that of the Naxals,who collect taxes,hold trials,issue punishment (including executions),recruit and operate a standing army,and are deeply dedicated to overthrowing the six-decade old Republic of India.

It is,of course,the failure of the republic to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians that created the conditions for Naxalism to grow in the first place. This original sin has underpinned the guilt-ridden response of many liberals. Naxalism is not a law and order problem,goes the argument; it is a socio-economic one. The reality,of course,is that it is both. The tragedy is that the debate on how to deal with Naxalism invariably treats the problem as one or the other  that is,either a law and order problem,to be dealt with harshly,or a socio-economic problem,to be tackled with dialogue and development  when what is probably required is to do both.

The origins of Naxalism might lie in socio-economic injustices,but the movement has long since gone past the stage of fighting for social justice and development. In fact,and this is what the liberal viewpoint often misses out,the Naxalites today actively oppose any form of developmental activity,be it the construction of roads,schools,hospitals,anything whatsoever,with the cold-blooded aim of securing their turf. Their sole objective today is to ruthlessly keep hammering away at the organs of the state until the state is no more. The movement is explicitly committed to dismantling the republic,doing away with elections,closing down the media,and,by way of its sympathy for regional breakaway groups,chopping up the country.

So are they terrorists or not? The only stretch by which it could be argued that they don’t meet all the characteristics of terrorists  as opposed to militants or freedom fighters of some kind  is that they do not officially target innocent civilians. But ask those who understand the problem best,those who have studied the Naxals credo and have actually risked their lives in the frontlines,and they will tell you that there is no doubt at all.

Does that mean that dialogue with them should be out of the question,military-style action the only option? Not exactly. National policy must first distinguish that all Naxals are not equal. Many of the Naxal elite are college and university educated,they form the core of the CPI (Maoist) party,are its ideologues,and aspire to come to power some day. They must be tackled differently from the grunts,the disaffected tribals and other disenfranchised Indians who are the indoctrinated foot soldiers.

The central government has finally put together a grand plan,which will hugely increase boots on the ground to fight fire with fire. Those of us from Naxal-affected states had for years been wondering when Delhi was going to wake up and smell the coffee. Delhi seems to have not only smelled the coffee,but ingested a large dose of testosterone as well. But while hitting back with firepower is a necessary evil  necessary because the policy needs to have both carrot and stick  it will sadly not be enough.

The Naxals have been preparing for this day for years. They believe they have the upper hand in guerrilla type hit-and-run jungle warfare against the paramilitary forces being massed against them. They will also not hesitate to use as cannon fodder their cadre of foot soldiers. While the resolve of the Government of India will surely be tested,that of the Naxalites will not be,until and unless their core leadership,their ideologues,are engaged.

It is here that dialogue,track two discussions,could help. As in other militant movements in the North East for instance resolute military action combined with astute discussions could help to bring them into the mainstream. But there are those who maintain that dialogue is not the only complement to massive armed action. A retired civil servant with experience of such matters recently told me that talks are a waste of time,but a hundred or more top (Naxal) leaders need to be wiped out by targeted action,just the way it was done in Punjab before the terrorism there could be solved,and exactly how progress has been made in Andhra Pradesh.

There is hidden irony in the underlying similarity of these vastly different approaches talks vs. encounters  in that both doves and hawks are unwittingly saying the same thing: the massive armed action being readied now will run into expendable,and renewable,low-level Naxalites; what is also needed is a plan to tackle their leaders.