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Guilt by Association

by Bobby Kunhu, 18 October 2009

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The impunity of repression is directly proportional to the extent of insecurity of the State. This is the obvious reason why dictatorial/tyrannical/autocratic regimes tend to be brutal. This does not mean that insecurity, brutality and repression belong only to repressive regimes. Democratic governments reflecting the insecurity of the voters and elected leaders have very often displayed rather audaciously their capacity to unleash very sophisticated and brutal campaigns of repression, often subverting the very values that got the government into power in the first place. There can be no better example than the state of emergency that was declared by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975.

While negotiating multiple interests, liberal democratic regimes tend to be manifestations of social hegemony reflecting power aspirations of dominant stakeholders. This manifestation propels the ideology of the state and is used to construct justifications for State actions ranging from colonialism to imperialism in its relationship with other states and taxation to law and order in its relationship with its own citizens. Subverting the clichéd myth of democracy being the will of the majority, very often population groups, depending on their position in the socio-political hierarchy and irrespective of whether they form arithmetic majority or not are either passive or excluded in the business of governance.

Our concern here is state reprisal when excluded peoples either challenge this manifestation, or assert or demand a stake in power. The best documented successful model of such reprisal (in a democracy) was the McCarthy era during the peak of the cold war, where the specter of communism was invoked as “un-American” to quell dissent resulting in one of the most successful purges in the history of modern democracy, and definitively marking the ideological paradigm of operational politics. The primary tool that McCarthyism used to discredit people was to establish their guilt of being “communist” or “un-American” – categories not defined in Law, by association!

McCarthy himself might have been discredited, but that tool, guilt by association; has been transformed into a universal art for managing differences the world over – to justify war and persecution – subverting legal and moral norms, aimed at establishing an ideological flatland. The preponderance of this phenomenon can be seen by the fact that it has traveled half a century, halfway across the globe, in the service of a set of people that it set out persecuting!!

In an ironic twist to history, the very people who claim to have inherited the legacy of resistance from those persecuted by the McCarthy fallout – in the face of political adversity – are framing novel versions of guilt by association to weed out dissent.

The government of West Bengal seems to have become adept at this art. Most recently, the manner in which the Lalgarh resistance is being handled stands testimony to this. Notwithstanding the final outcome of the judicial process in the allegations leveled against Chhatradar Mahato and the cases he might or might not face, the drama that was enacted to arrest was to say the least despicable – it pointed to a lack of willingness to engage with basic democratic norms and has rightly been condemned at least by sensible sections of the media. But worse still was the statement, rather threat made by Ashok Chakroborty, the Chief Secretary of the West Bengal Government to all who might overtly or tacitly defend or support Mahato. This seems to portent the beginnings of a witch hunt and indicates a complete disrespect for democracy generally and the rule of the Law particularly

The facts as I see them are that an adivasi resistance movement against police atrocities was hijacked by the Maoists and projected as their own, in their war against the State. The State conveniently steps in and labels everything to do with Lalgarh as Maoist and arrests the leaders of the resistance movement. There are many perplexing subtexts to this story.

The first part of the story is incomprehensible given that the Peoples Committee Against Police Atrocities, spearheading the resistance has categorically denied being Maoist. So have the leaders who have been arrested. The government cannot claim ignorance of the fact that Maoists are a breed that wears ideology on the sleeve and none of the Maoists leaders from Kondapally Seetharamaiah to Kobad Ghandy have ever bothered to deny their association with the movement.

If the relatively powerful bhadralok in Calcutta feel threatened, I wonder what would be the plight of the people in Lalgarh caught in the crossfire between the State and the Naxals!!

While, in Kerala, a more subtle and insidious campaign is underway, which, I believe needs to be read in the context of the success of the Chengara struggle in exposing the entrenched castiesm in social and political Kerala. The fact that a person no lesser than the Director General of Police has set the discourse on Dalit terrorism rolling, in the context of the murder of Siva Prasad in Varkala, seems to indicate the level of insecurity caused by the recent spurt in assertive Dalit politics.

It is for the judicial process to determine and of course it could be very possible that Sivaprasad was killed by the people accused of the crime by the police. But then, how did this one – off crime get translated into the cascade of accusations, particularly of dalit terrorism? I do not think any one would disagree that positing the discourse of terror on a communitarian basis is the best way to debilitate any community. A precise definition of terrorism is yet to evolve, which makes it a convenient façade to justify extra-legal and illegal actions.

An allegation of terrorism, in the common parlance assumes the existence of a sinister network. For this the police have zeroed in on an organization – the Dalit Human Rights Movement. Here it would be pertinent to point out that the DHRM was an unheard of entity even within the Dalit political and civil society circles until this case. However the only bases for the allegations of terror that are provided the police so far include only facts like that members of DHRM wear uniforms (black shirts and blue jeans) and that they have physical drills. On that basis, there would be many organizations including from the far right to the far left including the RSS, the dravida kazhakam etc. that would qualify to be terror organizations in the event of any of its members being accused of committing an offence

I wonder if the Kerala police administration and its political bosses are aware of the legal ramifications of their action. Section 3(1) (viii) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act proscribes punishment for whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe institutes false, malicious or vexatious suit or criminal or other legal proceedings against a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe. Further, Section 3 (2) (vii) includes any person being a public servant, committing any offence under this section. Anyways, ignorance of law is not an excuse.

What is irksome is that the above narrations are occurring in states ruled by governmental formations that claim left democratic legitimacy. What is also irksome is the way that some segments of the media lapped up and propagated the unedited versions of the State’s stories. The only answer to dissent in democracy is more democracy. When the dissent takes a form that intrudes into other peoples democratic rights – then too, the response has to be democratic – in adherence with the procedure established by law – especially in a country that boasts of sophisticated legal system and celebrates its diversity. McCarthyism can only be the road to subverting both democracy and pluralism!!