Ramachandra Guha

Vigilantism of Salwa Judum has divided and very nearly destroyed tribal society.

All sensible humans—not just Indians—agree that there is no place for violence in the settlement of political disputes. If a particular group feels victimised or discriminated against, it has all kinds of democratic means of redress open to it—the circulation of its grievances by the means of speech or print; the canvassing of politicians, political parties, and public officials; and petitions in court. If (and only if) all these means fail, the group may yet take recourse to non-violent protest or satyagraha. But they have no business to use weapons, whether they are AK-47s or trishuls.

Like Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad (‘Where Democracy Shines Through,’ The Hindu, 14th January 2009), I salute the high voter turnout in the recent state elections across the country. Like him, I do not think the Kashmiri separatists or the naxalites have any legitimacy to make out their case through violence. Where I depart is in my assessment of the methods used by the state to contain or tame this violence. For Mr. Prasad, while the rebels must be bound by the norms of democracy and non-violence, in the case of the state the end, of restoring law and order, can apparently justify the most egregious and violent means. Hence his defence of the support given by the Government of Chhattisgarh to the vigilante group that goes by the name of Salwa Judum.

Like Mr. Prasad, I have travelled through the naxalite-affected areas of Chhattisgarh; unlike him, I went not as a prominent politician but as an ordinary citizen. I was thus able to see things that very clearly escaped his attention. He is right to speak of “the overpowering and looming fear” felt by a section of the tribals with regard to the naxalites; but wrong to overlook the overpowering fear felt by another section of the tribals with regard to Salwa Judum. I myself saw homes and villages burnt and destroyed by Salwa Judum; met men beaten by Salwa Judum activists; spoke to women who had been humiliated by them. My findings have been corroborated by dozens of other independent writers and scholars who have studied, at first hand, the depredations of Salwa Judum.

Like Mr. Prasad, I regard naxalites as a menace. Unlike him, I believe that they can be tackled only through effective police action and by ending the social and economic marginalisation of the tribals. However, by promoting Salwa Judum, the State government has outsourced law and order, escalated violence, and divided and very nearly destroyed tribal society. Family has been set against family; village against village; clan against clan.

The vigilantism of the Salwa Judum kind has been criticised by no less a person than the Chief Justice of India. As he remarked last April, by distributing “arms to some people,” the state could be “abetting in a crime if these private persons kill others.” (As indeed, they have.) Even the founder of Salwa Judum, the Congress leader Mahendra Karma, has had second thoughts about his creation. Interviewed by a television channel, Mr Karma admitted that the movement had “spiralled out of control.” He went on to observe: “In a revolution, the mass is difficult to control. They will even turn against me. A violent mob does not have direction or conscience.”

On the other hand, Mr. Prasad suggests that the victory of the ruling party in Chhattisgarh provides retrospective justification of this kind of vigilantism. “The pent-up anger” against naxalism, he writes, found “a powerful voice” in Salwa Judum—which, according to him, “explains the election results.” By the same token, would he accept that the massive victory of the Congress in the 1984 general elections, as a manifestation of the “pent-up anger” at the death of their leader Indira Gandhi, justified the killing of so many innocent Sikhs that preceded those elections? In arguing as he does, Mr. Prasad is appearing to endorse, albeit from the other side, the naxalite belief that the end always justifies the means.

Mr. Prasad’s arguments are illogical. They are also ill-timed. To make out their case for Kashmir, the Pakistani state eschewed diplomatic and legal methods, instead promoting non-state actors such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The consequences of these actions are manifest for all to see. In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, we in India should be especially careful to observe, in all respects, the forms of constitutional authority and governance bequeathed to us by our founders. The non-state actors promoted by Pakistan have wrought havoc on thousands of innocent Indians; but they have not spared Pakistan or Pakistanis either. In the same way, the non-state actors promoted by the Chhattisgarh government may, here and there, have killed a few naxalites; but they have also killed very many innocent villagers while damaging, perhaps irretrievably, the social fabric of adivasi society.