Debating India


Reaching Critical Mass


Monday 14 June 2004, by GILL*K.P.S.

It is only a question of time before circumstances in the widening areas of lawlessness and violence in the country become too unbearable to ignore.

The electoral surprises of the recent general and state elections came as an abrupt reminder to politicians that the poor masses cannot be ignored, even as official attention is lavished on a few islands of prosperity, on narrow, though stupendous, successes in a few select sectors where India was, indeed, "Shining". The neglect of the poor, however, is not the only major failing that can jeopardise political futures. Indeed, it is only a question of time before circumstances in the widening areas of lawlessness and violence in the country become too unbearable to ignore.

Indeed, internal security conditions in many parts of the country are already intolerable. Jammu & Kashmir, much of the country’s Northeast, and an almost continuous swathe of land along our Eastern board, from the Nepal border to Andhra Pradesh, which is afflicted by Left Wing Extremist, or "Naxalite", violence, witness high levels of violence and disorder, compounded by great and enduring neglect. While trends in violence-is reflected in total fatalities-have generally declined in J&K and in some of the states of the Northeast, the spread of Naxalite violence over the past decade has been alarming.

The Naxalites have continuously brought new areas under their influence, have grown far more organised, and have eliminated persistent internecine conflicts and "turf wars" between rival groups, to forge a powerful and unified movement that already extends across large or significant parts of at least eight states—Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal—and displays a sustained creeping extension into territories that border such areas of dominance.

Beyond these areas of major conflict, there is a much wider sphere in which security of life and property is, at best, tenuous. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are the first to leap to mind, and conditions in much of these two states are near anarchical. Governance and the Constitution have long been forgotten in the realpolitik of caste and communal alliances in these states, and the local crime lord and goonda are a reality of everyday life that almost everybody must deal with.

The sense of public insecurity, however, extends well beyond these areas of disorder, into areas of relatively good governance. People in Delhi, Bombay and the other reasonably (though far from well) administered metropolisis, need to factor in significant threats into their daily routine, and there are few places where people—and especially women—can confidently venture out after dark without special precautions. The increasing height of protective boundary walls in affluent colonies, and the ubiquitous presence of private security are witness to the growing uncertainties in the best of our cities.

The recent gruesome murders and other crimes in trains travelling through Bihar, illustrate how unsafe it has become for the common citizen to travel by rail or bus in many parts of the country. These incidents are far from unusual, and have no connection with the change of government at the centre, or with a particular minister taking over charge of the railways. They are part of a continuous trend that relates to the chronic and comprehensive systemic failure to provide an adequate security infrastructure across the country.

The increasing criminalisation of politics, and the deepening criminal-politician-bureaucratic-businessman nexus exposed in many recent high-profile scandals, suggest that the situation can only be expected to worsen over time, unless extraordinary and determined initiatives are taken.

As the new United Progressive Alliance takes charge, enormous emphasis has been placed on a more balanced process of development, with particular prominence being given to the agricultural and rural sectors, even as the technology and industrial sectors continue to receive encouragement. Yet, many plans and projects could eventually founder against the issue of security. Those who have been engaged in developmental works in areas of widespread violence are well aware of the near impossibility of effective operation; by and large, the extension and outreach infrastructure of the government in these areas has been dismantled. Recreating this infrastructure requires, before anything else, precisely the ingredient that led to the initial collapse: Security.

The policy orientation to internal security in India—irrespective of the party in power—has always been deeply flawed. The dominant premise has been that expenditure on security is "non-productive" expenditure, and consequently, is given a low priority. Higher allocations are only forthcoming in situations of crisis. As a result—despite a great deal of political rhetoric about "proactive policies" in the recent past—the main thrust of internal security policies has essentially remained reactive, and unforgivably tardy.

Police forces have only been reluctantly modernised well after major crises have erupted. Where chronic crises of low grade violence persist, sometimes for decades, at levels that do not trouble the political equations in some states, modernisation continues to remain neglected, and we find, from time to time, photographs in the media of ill-equipped policemen on bicycles, carrying outdated .303 rifles, supposedly giving chase to Naxalites in Bihar or Jharkhand or Chattisgarh.

It is useful, in this context, to examine the situation that currently prevails in Nepal, and the devastating sweep of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M). For over five years from the declaration of the "people’s war" in February 1996, the Maoist power grew and was continuously consolidated, even as the ill-equipped police force was systematically targeted, and the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) looked the other way. It was only after the Army camp at Dang was attacked on November 23, 2001, that the government began to address the problem with requisite seriousness, deploying the Army, raising new paramilitary forces, and upgrading police weaponry, communications and transport.

By this time, however, it was much too late, and the Maoists had established vast "liberated zones" across much of the rural hinterland. Today, all of Nepal, outside the various district headquarters, has passed out of the control of the government. Nepal is receiving millions of dollars in developmental aid from a range of international agencies and friendly countries, but is in no position to execute any projects, and some aid agencies have now made aid conditional on the resolution of the conflict.

It is important, within this context, to understand that anti-state groups and criminals do not have to replace the state to wreak the havoc they desire. They have only to make the agencies of the state ineffective, and to create and sustain disorder. The state, on the other hand, has a far more onerous responsibility: It must not only maintain order, it must effectively deliver a wide range of public goods and services, absent which it is deemed to have "failed", creating the spaces for the activities and dominance of anti-state and criminal groups.

The crisis in India is certainly not comparable to the comprehensive collapse in Nepal, but there are already large parts of this country that have been compromised, and where the general disorder has passed beyond an acceptable stage.Years of half-hearted attempts have failed to recover these territories, even as others have slipped out of the grip of effective administration.

There has been a slow but steady erosion of the authority of the government and this needs urgently to be reversed. It is now time for the political leadership, cutting across party lines, to look immediately at these pressing problems. Unfortunately, there appears to be little political will for effective action in this direction. Unless security and law and order become electoral issues, it seems, the political classes will let these growing wounds fester, with potentially devastating consequences for India.


Pic : Recent violence in Bihar

in Outlook India, Monday, June 14, 2004.

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