“Laws cannot remain silent when the cannons roar,” the Supreme Court of India declared earlier this week, upturning Cicero's dictum to pronounce a historic judgment on the violent darkness that has enveloped the heart of India in Chhattisgarh. While the State and Union governments have predictably announced their intention to seek a review, the court's decision to disarm and disband the forces of mostly young, barely literate, and poorly trained Special Police Officers (SPOs) deployed by the state in the fight against Maoist insurgents is a blow for constitutional order. “Modern constitutionalism,” the court noted, “posits that no wielder of power should be allowed to claim the right to perpetrate ... violence against anyone, much less its own citizens, unchecked by law and notions of innate human dignity of every individual.” The burden of the judgment is simple: the country does face a threat from the Maoist insurgency but any attempt by the state to use “lawless violence” as a counter will only perpetuate and intensify the cycle of violence, as “the death toll revealed by the Government of Chhattisgarh” itself indicates. By default as well as design, the SPOs — whether organised under the name of ‘Salwa Judum' or ‘Koya Commandos' — have become the chief instrument of this lawless and failed counter-insurgency strategy. Innocent tribals have been the primary victims, either as targets of the SPOs or as poorly trained foot soldiers in a bloody war the government is not even prepared to properly finance.
In demanding an end to the SPO system, the Supreme Court has acted as much out of concern for the hapless tribal population of Dantewada as for the tribal youth who were press-ganged by their individual circumstances into becoming “cannon fodder” for the state. Chhattisgarh as well as the Union of India were guilty of violating the fundamental rights of citizens at large and the SPOs themselves. The court has also made the link between Chhattisgarh's illegal counter-insurgency strategy and the wider “neoliberal” approach being followed by the government at the Central and State levels. This approach is spawning disaffection among the poor and giving a boost to insurgency. The Salwa Judum is the illegitimate product of a system that sees nothing wrong in giving tax breaks to the rich and guns to the poor to fight each other, the court said. But the Constitution “is most certainly not a ‘pact for national suicide',” it concluded in ordering an end to this state of affairs. These are profound words. Both the Union of India and Chhattisgarh must immediately implement this splendid expression of judicial wisdom, not waste time in seeking a review.