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Sadanand Menon: When law takes help of lawlessness


Sadanand Menon  |  New Delhi 

The latest weekly bulletin of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (, brought out by Suhas Chakma, makes the interesting, if obvious, point that booming economies in modern societies are predicated upon a boom in 'conflict'. The Indian case is highlighted where the claims of a close to 9 per cent growth rate is offset by an 80 per cent increase in social conflict.
This oxymoron of a phenomenon is something that P Sainath had indicated, with customary drollery, in his Everybody Loves a Good Drought (Penguin, 1997). Wherever there is a disaster, economic agencies rush in to make a 'killing'. Some of the biggest convulsions of recent times, the 2001 World Trade Centre strikes and the 2004 tsunami, were accompanied by unprecedented boom on the stock markets. Claims of a national grain surplus in 2006 ride on the back of reports indicating the endemic hunger of over 250 million Indians.
The 2002 pogrom in Gujarat helped Narendra Modi's makeover as a vikas purush, converting his electoral agenda to a boast about his contributions to 'development' as if he were a Vishveshwaraiyya, Mahalanobis and Malcolm Adiseshiah rolled into one. It is another matter that he cannot but help boast, in the same breath, of the Sohrabuddin 'encounter killing' too. The nexus is implicit.
The 2005 events at the Honda factory in Gurgaon, where hundreds of striking workers on a peaceful protest were savaged by the combined brutality of the state police as well as private 'security', to protect the interests of the multinational company, suggests a contemporary pattern which needs closer scrutiny. It is a pattern of state collusion with private agencies not only to deny rights to 'victims' but also to aggressively subject them to a double victimisation.
The growth of the private militias (what Suhas Chakma calls 'militia-isation') and the carte blanche they enjoy, inasmuch as the forces of the democratic state stand by without restraining or punishing the usurpation of the 'rule-of-law' by these illegal outfits, has emerged as a special feature of the past decades. The first manifestation of this was, perhaps, seen during the November 1984 anti-Sikh carnage in Delhi, when local police in Shahdara, Mangolpuri or Lajpat Nagar not only stood by, but actively helped lumpen vigilantes in opening up public distribution centres to raid kerosene stocks. This, of course, became a fine art by the time Gujarat happened, where the state even took pride in its brutal strategy of divide and rule. There can be no greater terror than to have your long-time neighbours set upon you, even as the local cop station refuses to acknowledge your existence.
While the Bajrang Dal, Sambhaji Brigade and Vishwa Hindu Parishad developed their own special pedagogies of street violence in tandem with the police and courts, with even an occasional Ph D in intimidating individual artists or works of art, the methodology of creating a public-private nexus of violence was taking rapid roots all over. Chimanbhai Patel, despite a Congress cap, gave graphic demonstration of this during Gujarat's 'resistance' to Medha Patkar and activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan when, for the first time, the issue was presented as Gujarat versus the rest, as if asking for a review of the mega-dam project was a challenge to the state's unique identity. Moditva, methinks, was born somewhere in those alleyways.
Other states have not been far behind. MGR, during his last years, converted Tamil Nadu into a bastion of state vigilantism buttressed by his white armies of private thugs wielding choppers and acid bulbs. There were over 200,000 people stuffed in police stations with no FIRs issued. Of these, a large number were booked under the arbitrary powers of the Vagrancy Act and the Lunacy Act. Almost 400 people had been booked under the untenable colonial law of Sedition. The point is, a majority of these were not 'criminals', but people who simply fell foul of the public-private jugalbandi in the state. Jayalalithaa, who succeeded MGR, extended both the quantum and scale of attack against unions or citizen-groups resisting crony-deals for the acquisition of traditional forest lands, coastal villages or agricultural stretches. She let her AIADMK party cadres unleash violence, and then sent cops to arrest the victims. It was an exotic marriage of law and lawlessness.
However, post-'liberalisation' all property has been notionally re-conceptualised as property that can be acquired by the State, on behalf of global capital, for commercialisation. A new spectre has been unleashed. Khairlanji, Kalinga Nagar, Muthanga, Kashipur, Bailadila, Beliapal, Dantewada, Singur, Nandigram, Dhinkia (in Orissa, headquarters of the committee for resistance against the Korean POSCO) and so on have quickly become household names on the developmental map, where resisting the robbing of one's house and land is construed as aggression against the state and its noble intentions of industrialisation or development.
The cherry on top, of course, is the concept of Salwa Judum in Chattisgarh, where a legitimately elected government, in turn, sets up an illegitimate private army, giving it the licence to run riot against a perceived 'anti-industrialisation' threat from Maoist groups. It is breathtaking, then, to find the organised Left tilting against the Maoists and in favour of state-sponsored and armed militias.
It is the magic wand of metropolitan capital at work, which can obfuscate ideological distinctions to set up unapologetic corporate assaults on peoples' lands.

First Published: Fri, December 14 2007. 00:00 IST