Perhaps no other chain of events in the recent past has had a more direct and substantial impact on the life of human beings across the world than acts of terror. Terrorism has not only affected our lives directly, but has also allowed the state to intrude in our lives like never before.
Since the security of the individual is a basic human right (and a fundamental condition of the social contract underpinning society), the protection of individuals is a fundamental obligation of the state. In recent years, however, the measures adopted by states to counter terrorism have themselves sometimes been found wanting in terms of compliance with human rights norms. The means and methods adopted by the state have posed serious challenges to human rights and the rule of law, and often this is on account of the zeal of the law-enforcement agencies to give a commensurate response to the terrorist.
The state cannot legitimately respond by resorting to mechanisms that overstep the limits of the law. Thus, a reason why it is important for the state to ensure that none of its measures transgresses the limits of the law is any transgression may have the effect of eroding both its legitimacy and the rule of law, thereby fomenting further unrest and erosion of faith in the Constitution.
In the name of combating extremism, repressive measures are also used to stifle the voice of human rights activists, advocates, minorities, indigenous groups, journalists and civil society. There is another dimension: by being able to build up a perception of threat, the state may be able to get away with channelling the funds normally allocated to social programmes towards strengthening the police force and the army. The talked-up threat perception of terrorism (and a few ‘encounters’) may well be used to justify the acquisition of more weapons. As Professor Simon Bronitt of Australian National University has summed up “…there is almost a new genus of law: post 9/11 law. Although 9/11 has become a significant force in justifying these laws, the truth is that there is an element of opportunism [by some law-enforcement and state agencies] behind these claims of necessity for new powers and offences.”
While militarisation and the strengthening of police forces are important in their own right, it is equally necessary to understand the genuineness of the ‘security reasons’ presented by the state as a ground for abridgment of human rights, many of which are fundamental. Frisking, for example, which used to be considered a grave intrusion upon one’s privacy at one point of time, is today normalised and we are all fine with being frisked everywhere.
Little or no attention is paid to the true causes of resort to violent methods. It is as if the deafening sound of explosions and landmines is used to attract the attention of the state to existential realities. There are grim realities of existence as tribals in this country, and the unfortunate aspect is that their unheard voices fail to make a din in the power corridors. From their perspective, extremism, violence and terrorism become a means to attract the attention of the state.
Governments have been non-responsive to peaceful protests and have, in fact, come down heavily on peaceful protesters as they did at India Gate when they relentlessly beat up women protesting in the aftermath of last December’s gang rape in Delhi. The state turns a blind eye to the violence committed by state actors, and private actors in connivance with state actors, which results in irreversible psychological damage.
It is evident that the state has misplaced priorities. Since there is little that the state seems to have done, one can safely say that it does not seem to be aware of the abysmal conditions in which the tribals of Chhattisgarh live.
The state does not seem to be aware that tribals in Madhya Pradesh eat the poisonous kesari dal which is reported to have a paralytic impact. The state also does not seem to be aware that tribal women and other villagers in Maharashtra have to walk miles before they can get drinking water. This feeling of being ‘parentless’ makes people vulnerable to anti-state ideologies. Having said this, I am not legitimising violence against innocents by invocation of oppression; I am only suggesting that oppression is one of the reasons of unrest which manifests in the resort to violence against the state and insignias of the state.
In the Mahanadi Coal Fields Case (2010), the Supreme Court took strong exception to the manner in which the Central government and the Mahanadi Coal Fields Limited had acquired the lands of tribals in the Sundargarh district of Odisha and not compensated them even 23 years later. In fact, 20 years after dispossessing them, the government noted that the land was actually not required!
The Supreme Court observed: “the whole issue of development appears to be so simple, logical and commonsensical. And yet, to millions of Indians, development is a dreadful and hateful word that is aimed at denying them even the source of their sustenance. It is cynically said that on the path of ‘maldevelopment’ almost every step that we take seems to give rise to insurgency and political extremism [which along with terrorism are supposed to be the three gravest threats to India's integrity and sovereignty] … The resistance with which the state’s well meaning efforts at development and economic growth are met makes one think about the reasons for such opposition to the state’s endeavours for development. Why is the state’s perception and vision of development at such great odds with the people it purports to develop? And why are their rights so dispensable?”
Listen to people
The Supreme Court’s identification of the issue is not off the mark, and I believe it is quite perceptive of the reality. Studies establish that absolute deprivation by the state has a psychological impact on its people. Therefore, any attempt to combat violence by the state must have within its fold the measures to eliminate the conditions conducive to the spread of extremism, which must include (a) strengthening the rule of law; (b) fostering respect for human rights and provision for reparation for violations; (c) reversing ethnic, national and religious discrimination, political exclusion, and socio-economic marginalisation; (d) listening to the people and (e) becoming more responsive to society.
The recent events of violence are tragic without a doubt but they contain the seeds of rejection of political structures. Political structures need to build confidence by dialogue, working on the ground for the uplift of the poor, and must work with an attitude of inclusiveness.
While mourning the loss of human life, we must devise innovative systems of engagement, based not on power or hierarchical administration but equality. One wishes ardently that new mechanisms of review — with deep and meaningful engagement with the local communities suggested in the Verma Committee on crimes against women — be quickly operationalised and deployed.
(The author is a senior advocate, a former Solicitor General of India, and a former Chairman, Bar Council of India)