On 3 December, Attorney General of India (AGI) Mukul Rohatgi told the Supreme Court, “The army is only discharging its sovereign function of defending the country from external aggression and terrorist attacks, it cannot be blamed if some people are killed. The killings are part of the sovereign function discharged by the Union of India through the army.” This was the government’s explanation for rejecting the 2013 report of Justice Santosh Hegde Committee. The apex court had set up the committee to probe alleged extrajudicial killings in the Northeast in the name of “encounters”.
The government’s defence of murder by ‘security forces’ is in a piece with its stand on the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been widely condemned across civil society for giving impunity to men in uniform carrying out heinous crimes as part of counterinsurgency operations. Rohatgi’s submission in the Supreme Court was a rationalisation of this impunity as well as a plea for further militarisation of the conflict-torn region.
Opinions are divided on the timing and political wisdom of the statement, though the regime in New Delhi seems quite happy with it. For the BJP-led government, it is just a prelude to more chest-thumping “surgical” operations against “anti-nationals”. It also serves a more partisan political purpose: such “bold” words from a representative of the regime, that too in a court of law, is likely to help galvanise the support of “nationalist” zealots for a government no longer as confident of its feet on the ground as it was when it took power in May 2014. Killing in the “national interest” gives strength to those who reach out to the people in the name of an “imagined nation”.
The devil in the details, though, unveils the following implications of the attorney general’s statement:
The AGI’s statement was the last attempt to defend the men who killed civilians in cold blood during peacetime. So far, men in uniform have got away with murder through a tangled process that starts with denial of involvement in the crime. When that fails to pass muster with public opinion, evidence is tampered with and impunity under AFSPA is invoked. If the crime still manages to make it to the courts, the complexity of the proceedings further brings down the possibility of justice.
In 2012, the Supreme Court responded to a writ petition filed against 1,528 alleged extrajudicial killings in the Northeast. It came as a breath of fresh air into the claustrophobic chambers of impunity in cases of State violence. A committee was appointed under Justice Hegde the following year to investigate six cases. Testimonies and hectic hearings by the committee revealed that all six were indeed cases of extrajudicial killings.
Once the report was out, denial was no longer an option for the security forces. No wonder the central government’s focus shifted to devising a politically emotive statement aimed at inciting jingoism and mounting pressure on the judiciary to justify the killings. The Hegde report had to be consigned to the dustbin to protect the offenders from the law.
The AGI’s statement falls easily into the pattern of militarisation and its justifications that India has seen since 1947. The edifice of the ‘nation’ that won freedom from British rule was built on the military destruction of the then existing princely states and the suppression of recalcitrant tribes and other communities. Yet, it was the insurgencies in Kashmir and the Northeast that are blamed for forcing the Indian State to militarise these regions and impose AFSPA on the people.
So, it’s no surprise that the current ruling party and its predecessors speak in one voice on the issue of militarisation. On 17 August 2004, the then home minister Shivraj Patil told Lok Sabha that it was “our bounden duty to see that the morale of the armed forces is not allowed to be attacked.”
Top officers in the security establishment in the Northeast, too, echo the same sentiment. For instance, in response to a Human Rights Watch report in 2008, former Manipur DGP Y Joykumar said “insurgency was an incurable disease” that left them no other choice than eliminating the insurgents. In 2010, the Director General of Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force that spearheads counterinsurgency in the Northeast, said, “We (soldiers) function under orders and hence our interests need to be protected.”
The underlying logic of this mindset — buttressed by the dominant global narrative on the War on Terror — is that more militarisation is the only possible response to insurgency and whenever troops are deployed to fight insurgents, there would be some degree of indiscriminate killings and violation of rights, and so the security forces must be allowed some degree of impunity to be able to do their job.
In the absence of political and economic initiatives to address the systemic fault lines that run through the body politic, insurgency is a given. The corollary is that only the sincerity and demonstrable success of such initiatives can make insurgencies redundant. But what does a government do when the Indian State has failed so far to accomplish much of that?
In the Northeast, for instance, the government’s substitute for structural transformation is increased reliance on the means of violence at its command to graft the official version of Indian nationalism — to tattoo it on people’s minds, so to speak — by crushing the resistance by all means possible.
The repercussions are mindboggling. For instance, many critics of the counterinsurgency policy point out that the desperation to beat down long-raging insurgencies has often forced the State to manipulate various groups into working at cross-purposes and promoting sectarian conflicts among them. Many go on to argue that the policymakers and the bureaucracy do not want the insurgency to end as it is a golden goose that yields huge dividends in the name of funds for counterinsurgency, some of which ends up in the coffers of the corrupt.
Among those at the receiving end of the counterinsurgency stick, however, there is little doubt that it is the defining factor that curtails the possibility of exercising all the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Also, it would be misplaced to pin the blame on security personnel alone, as they are trained primarily to engage the enemy in do-or-die battles, not assist the civil administration. No wonder avoiding collateral damage is often a tall order for a counterinsurgent force.
So, how does the government try to minimise the chances of people’s rage against State violence snowballing into democratic pressure to rethink the basics of the dominant model of counterinsurgency? That’s where propaganda comes in. Deceptive jargon such as “national security”, “counter-terrorism”, “law and order problem” and more come handy to confuse and distort. The propaganda cover to questionable acts of violence by the ‘security forces’ is provided by a vast network of the disseminators of political misinformation set up by the State.
The weapon of choice in the propaganda war involves dehumanising the insurgency by reducing it to a few insistently repeated negative phrases, images and concepts. Repeated a thousand times, the proverbial lie acquires the status of objective truth, served cut-and-dried to millions of unsuspecting consumers who lap it up without asking questions. That is how a huge sections of the masses come to believe that the victims of militarisation are outside the perimeter of democracy and deserve no rights. The AGI’s statement justifying killing citizens in the name of nationalism is just more of the same.
In November 2012, the Supreme Court expressed shock and asked “how can a state government file an affidavit stating that they are killing ‘us’ and so we are killing ‘them’… Are we in a state of war?” The fake encounters probed by the Justice Hegde committee had all been carried out in cold-blooded manner during peace time, and had little to do with “collateral mistakes” as wrongly interpreted in the AGI’s submission.
The AGI may dismiss
The culture of impunity also promotes the growth of a category of criminals as collaborators, who indulge in different types of crimes without fear because of their connection with the ‘security forces’.
The AGI’s statement reflects the degree of militarisation that the State finds acceptable in some parts of India where citizens and their fundamental rights, including the right to life, are “officially” treated as secondary to the ‘nation’. In every region that is declared “disturbed” under AFSPA, the top priority of the State is to uphold the dominant idea of “national interest” even at the cost of innocent lives.
New Delhi’s spirit of tolerance towards unrestrained growth and spread of the culture of impunity in which the army and other law enforcing agencies operate, has been built on jingoism, invoked, promoted and justified by the polemics of an infallible “mother nation” and intolerance towards insurgency. Few care to find out how the “nationalist” rhetoric is manufactured and blunders defended in the name of the ‘nation’.
One symptom of the malaise that impunity for security forces promotes among people in “disturbed areas” is the craze among many youngsters to join the very forces whose excesses they protest against. The craze is because no other vocation provides that kind of access to the means of exercising brute power on other individuals, and also enables corrupt money-making on the side. Indeed, “national interest” seems to be the last of the concerns on the ground. If this remains unchecked, it won’t be long before the ‘nation’ is eaten up by “national security”.
This article is originally published at Tahelka.
Dr. Malem Ningthouja