THAT TIME OF THE GUN – After Nandigram, the political debate should focus on violence

Wednesday, November 21, 2007
by Dilip Simeon

The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world — Hannah Arendt

After Nandigram, the most important concern in political debate ought to be the issue of violence — legitimate, illegitimate, formal and informal. I doubt whether this debate will take place, because the ground shared by enemies is embarrassing for everyone and, by mutual consent, remains unspeakable. Still, certain disquieting facts stare us in the face. Avoiding their implications will take us yet again to the zone where we focus on “who started it” — an infinite sequential regression that explains nothing and satisfies no one.

Political violence is always ugly, but thus far, the State has held the monopoly on legitimate force. The more a state relies on outright force, the more brittle and shaky its hegemony. This is true for empires such as the British, the Soviet and the American, as well as for national regimes. A connected issue is the maintenance of ‘irregulars’ or vigilantes. These political paramilitaries (not to be confused with the state’s paramilitary apparatus) represent the stabilization of informal violence; and their deployment is a grave symptom of the decline of state legitimacy.

The Opposition cannot deny that a number of supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Nandigram were forced to leave their villages. It is an abuse of democracy to engage in armed confrontations and force one’s opponents to vacate their homes. Certain parties intervened there more with the motive of augmenting their political standing than of fulfilling popular aspirations. However, on the issue of land acquisition, democratic norms demanded that the villagers be consulted prior to making plans for their eviction. With the outbreak of conflict, the government was bound to maintain peace whilst looking for a solution. Instead, there were cases of intimidation, leading to the alienation even of leftwing cadre.

The matter was compounded in March, when the police confronted the opposition with the help of an informal militia. This use of an extra-constitutional force was illegal. The government is entitled to use legitimate force to maintain civic peace. It does not have the right to despatch anonymous armed men to thrash its opponents. But this is exactly what it did, if even a fraction of the allegations are true. The second week of November saw a blatantly partisan administration neutralize the police and give free rein to vigilante groups. All constituents of the government bear responsibility for this. Arson and murder have taken place. Now that rape cases have been registered, the comrades could ask themselves whether this is a price worth paying for the ‘new sunrise’ in Nandigram. Is rape, too, a coin that needs to circulate?

There is a long-standing fascination with militarism in Indian politics. Veer Savarkar’s favourite slogan was “Militarize Hindu-dom!” Freedom fighters saw themselves as an army, Subhas Chandra Bose was drawn towards uniforms and military dictators. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has maintained itself in paramilitary format since its inception, and the communist tradition has tended to glorify ‘People’s War’. Two decades ago, the Khalistanis organized ‘commando forces’, and took titles such as ‘Lieutenant General’. Islamist guerrillas see themselves as warriors of the Almighty. The Northeast is teeming with generalissimos. A more immediate kind of informal violence has appeared in landlord armies such as the Ranvir Sena, and groups such as Chhattisgarh’s Salwa Judum. We could call it ‘security outsourcing’ in today’s managerial jargon.

There are distinctions to be made among paramilitaries. Some are inspired by Heavenly or Historical goals, others have more prosaic ends. Some are ideological, others pragmatic. Our upper-caste establishment refers to jihadis and Naxalites as ‘terrorists’, but does not see the Bajrang Dal or Shiv Sena that way. They are only ‘ultra-nationalists’. It objects to the violence and lawlessness practiced by the former, but winks at mass murder and revenge attacks by its own vigilantes, as in 1984 and 2002. Often political violence is enacted in the name of the oppressed — those who espouse it like to appear as the injured party, even when they are chief ministers. A binary division in the political ethos takes place, wherein we are moved to tears by the plight of our preferred victims, but impervious to the suffering inflicted on others by ‘our’ side. This gives rise to surreal spectacles, such as L.K. Advani’s declaration of never having witnessed such barbarity as he saw in Nandigram. Indeed. The victims of his cohorts in Gujarat still await the smallest gesture of human sympathy from this statesman, whose trip to West Bengal was unhampered by the administration, unlike Medha Patkar’s movements. Some citizens are more equal than others. Yes, we all make distinctions of one type or another.

But there remain some things in common among these formations. They all look upon, and wish to convert civil society into a war-zone. Their emotional universe is peopled by warriors and martyrs, and history for them is a long march of dead heroes. War is glorious, and bloodshed brings out the best in man. I submit that the best is close to the worst. One symptom of the mental disorder called sociopathy is the absence of pity. It is a sad feature of India’s political life that so many sociopaths have found their way to its commanding heights. And they are no less diseased who possess the capacity to order brutality from afar, but never get blood on their own hands.

Meanwhile, instead of defending what freedoms we have, the so-called people’s warriors abet the above process by attacking democracy in the name of a unilateral claim to represent people’s interests. May one expect the freedom of speech in their liberated areas? This October, the Maoists murdered 18 persons in Jharkhand. Did their victims have the opportunity to plead for mercy? It verges on the surreal when executioners demand democratic rights. Theirs is another kind of suspension of politics and of ethics.

Democracy can only survive if democratic freedoms are valued and extended to the home and the workplace. This cannot be done via the culture of militarism and violence. As Mahatma Gandhi said in 1909, what is obtained through fear can be retained only as long as the fear lasts. The comrades who wrought the new sunrise in Nandigram have lots of work ahead.

Source: The Telegraph