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India: Tiny Collateral Damage - Killing on the basis of suspicion can have dangerous results

by Ashok Mitra, 17 July 2012

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The Telegraph, July 13 , 2012

The early 20th-century American economist, Frank Knight, had a neat little theory on the role expectations play in the unfolding of economic phenomena. If a sufficiently large number of people think something is going to happen in the market, they, he suggested, act in a manner which ensures that that thing does indeed happen. If they believe prices are going to rise in the near future, they madly rush to the market to buy up goods before the price increase takes place; as a result, demand outstrips supply, which makes a price rise inevitable. If, on the other hand, people have a gut feeling that market prices are going to dip, if not tomorrow, surely the day after, they will postpone their buying and wait for the very nice day-after-tomorrow. Current demand will in consequence fall behind current supply, market price will therefore climb down.

Economic theory has grown vastly more sophisticated since Knight’s times, few now pay much attention to his theory. But look what is happening to India’s political landscape. Our suave, terribly earnest home minister is dividing his time between hunting down, in turn, Pakistani terrorists and the infernal Maoists. Sometime ago, he held a special press briefing on what he claimed was a major breakthrough in the war against the Maoists. The Central and state police-cum-paramilitary forces, he informed the press, had penetrated into the very heart of the Maoist stronghold in Chhattisgarh, taken unawares an assembly of insurgents in the Sakreguda village in the district of Bijapur, encircled them; a fierce exchange of firing ensued, the Maoists were annihilated, some 20 of the rogues, what good riddance, got killed in the encounter. The home minister sounded as if he was Harry S. Truman who had just nicked Hiroshima.

It took less than 24 hours for a less romantic version of the story to emerge. The home minister was not off the mark in his head count, but those shot dead by the overzealous Central Reserve Police Force personnel were no Maoists, they were, most of them, village children, the rest were innocent householders, all of them belonged to tribal communities. A groundswell of revulsion is now sweeping across Chhattisgarh. Even politicians owing allegiance to the home minister’s own party, including a party general secretary, have, seething in anger, contradicted the home minister.

Somewhat taken aback, the home minister has withdrawn his boastful tale of encirclement and annihilation and replaced it by the narration of ‘a chance encounter’, which ended up in the killings. The home minister was ‘sorry’ that some children and innocent people had to die. There was no trace, though, of contrition in his statement. What else could, the poor CRPF do, he asked, if village boys go wrong and act as shield for Maoists, the shield needs to be pierced if we are to catch up with the Maoist rascals; the circumstances were regrettable, but there was no way incidents of this nature, involving shooting down some harmless, peaceful citizens, could be avoided. What the minister said was a lovely echo of the notorious American doctrine of ‘collateral damage’.

The apologia, if it is that, is evidently not acceptable to many, even to the home minister’s colleagues in the Central council of ministers. It has not deterred the minister for tribal affairs from setting up an inquiry committee in his ministry, to unravel what actually transpired at Sakreguda. Quite a few eminences adorning the ruling party in New Delhi, still capable of taking a relatively long view, have also spoken up. Under pressure, the state government has ordered a judicial inquiry which, however, is bound to be a lugubrious process and end up in a whimper.

Does it not seem that the home minister and his comrades-in-bravado are trying to demonstrate how Knight’s theory concerning expectations could be made relevant in the political arena? The CRPF comes to suspect a particular village is a Maoist den, it therefore raids the village and indulges in an indiscriminate killing spree, a score of villagers — children among them — are slaughtered. Irrespective of whether the CRPF assumption of hard-core Maoists encamped in the village had any basis or was pure fiction, the aftermath of the grisly episode is soaring anger in the village against the police and paramilitary forces; what is bound to follow is a dramatic increase in sympathy and support for the Maoists. This swing of support is hardly likely to stay confined to Chhattisgarh. One of those who could not be finished off by the CRPF in the shootings was a four-year old child; its body though was riddled with bullets. It is conceivably the home minister’s honest belief that this child was a Maoist collaborator. His alternative pronouncement — even if the child were innocent, the authorities, sorry, could not provide a guarantee that such children would not, repeat not, under any circumstances get killed — is sheer bonanza for the Maoists. A quip has already started making the rounds: the home minister is a crypto-Maoist, he is, however, not aware of that fact.

There is a concurrent matter of equally grave implications. Those getting killed, wounded or arrested or those whose dwellings and land holdings are destroyed during the so-styled anti-Maoist operations or those whose property is taken away for the purpose of awarding this or that tycoon a development block for extracting coal or oil or natural gas or for setting up a steel or automobile plant invariably happen to be tribals. The story is the same whether it is Goa or Chhattisgarh or Madhya Pradesh or Bihar or Odisha or Jharkhand or West Bengal. Little point carping at civil rights groups; a few of them may have devious axes to grind, but a great many are simply do-gooders who, perhaps naively, take seriously the United Nations charter on human rights. Where members of tribal communities are patently at the receiving end of outrageously unfair treatment and no established political formation is willing or able to take up their cause, civil rights outfits, reluctant to let the Maoists appropriate monopolist control over the exploitation of tribal discontent, will be keen to bestir themselves. They have fraternal links with like-minded bodies in the Western countries. Governments of at least some of these countries may not necessarily cherish particular regard for India’s claim to be the world’s largest democracy. If India was such a great democracy, why is it, a few malicious ones could sneer, that its favourite pastime is to practise slow but determined genocide against descendants of the country’s original population constituting of as much as 10 per cent of the nation. If the circumstances continue to be the same as now, one or two India-baiting international agencies might go to the length of suggesting that India richly qualifies to be dubbed as a country engaged in a civil war, thus calling for external mediation. It is a globalized world hostage to the telecommunications networks, news travels far faster than light, even news from the remotest interior of India such as puny Sakreguda which could be grist for propaganda mills launched by interested groups crowding the lobbies of the UN. Initially, the shouting they do would possibly have only a nuisance value. But should the likes of our home minister be allowed to persist with their misadventures, things could turn towards increasingly more uncomfortable directions.

Meanwhile other developments could well take place. Indian air force personnel are reported to be extremely unhappy over being assigned the task of aerial surveillance across the country’s central belt where the Maoists are supposed to be deeply entrenched. Such reconnoitering, the complaint has been posted, does not come within their province and might hamper the IAF from performing effectively its basic functions. Given the precedents of the way such controversies are resolved in New Delhi, the ministry of home affairs might soon ask for a hefty additional budgetary appropriation so that it could set up its own air surveillance corps and not depend on the IAF. Any such extra appropriation, though, would give rise to other problems. The government is under pledge to the International Monetary Fund to bring down the fiscal deficit to a specific percentage of the gross domestic product within a stipulated period. The additional bounty for the ministry of home affairs would accordingly call for a corresponding scrimping of spending somewhere else. Again, going by precedents, the temptation would be to cut back funds for food security or rural employment schemes in order that the IMF be kept in good humour. The ultimate sufferers at the margin would once more be by and large the tribal people — more cheerful tidings for the Maoists.

The real tragedy lies elsewhere. There are enough wise and intelligent people, devout patriots, but no jingos, who have not the least doubt in their mind that the manner the home minister is trying to cope with the Maoist problem is dangerously erroneous, murdering the nation’s own children is no way to save it, and where these children have a sensitive ethnicity, this can even sow the seeds of the nation’s destruction. But precisely because they are intelligent, honest, decent people, they have intense abhorrence for the goings-on in the polity and tend to withdraw in their shells. They thereby only encourage the stubbornness of the species possessing the mindset of the country’s current home minister.

The polity can yet be saved. That, however, is contingent upon a countrywide stirring of the conscience of those still left with a conscience.


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