Thursday, Jul 07, 2022

Where The Buck Stops

The 'administrative and political lapses' that Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would like to dismiss as an aberration in Nandigram are, in fact, a chronic malady of the political executive in almost all states today

Despite West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's attempt to trivialise the Nandigram debacle as a mere "administrative and political lapse", this issue is not simply going to disappear. The recovery of the burnt remains of several bodies from shallow graves by the roadside near Nandigram are a reminder to the nation of the gravity of the excesses and incompetence that have marked the state's response to what should have been a fairly manageable challenge for the district administration. Nandigram is, in fact, symptomatic of a much wider collapse of administrative abilities and competence, and it is useful to note that the capacities for governance of the CPI(M), which has ruled West Bengal for three decades now, appear to have abruptly disintegrated in the face of the very first challenge of significance to confront the Left Front regime.

Stung by the crisis in Nandigram, compounded by the violent demonstrations orchestrated principally by Islamist organisations in the state (combining this issue with protests against Taslima Nasreen's 'blasphemies' against Islam), which forced the deployment of the Army in Kolkata, the Marxist leadership has announced that it will raise a 'youth army' to confront dissident groups in Nandigram and to re-establish its writ in the state. Earlier, instead of relying on the state police, and while actively obstructing the central forces deployed in the area to restore a modicum of order, the Marxists had chosen to use armed party cadre to 'recapture' Nandigram, engaging in extreme violence, murder and, if reports are to be believed, rape as well.

The CPI(M) is not a unique case. Confronted by the challenge of the Maoists in Chhattisgarh, the state government sought to piggy-back on some popular resentment against the extremists to engineer the Salva Judum, arming ordinary tribals to directly confront the much better organised, trained and armed Maoists. The principal instrumentalities of state power, meanwhile, shirked their responsibilities to impose the law of the land and to restore order and the security of private life and property in widening areas dominated by Maoist extremists.

These are, of course, the more visible and large-scale examples of the degree to which India's thin veneer of democracy is actually underpinned by unashamed political thuggeries that use every means possible to seize and hold power. That, precisely, is why so many criminals and Mafiosi are able to secure party tickets in every Parliamentary and Assembly election -- not to mention the lesser electoral processes of local bodies -- and why so many of the most unsavoury characters sit in India's highest elected chambers.

And that is why all the present bunkum about 'police reforms' will lead nowhere. state governments have, in fact, by and large and over the decades, actively undermined police organisations and the All India Services, including the Indian Police Service. The Supreme Court's orders on police reforms have, in fact, been used by many of the states to draft legislation that is even more antediluvian and regressive than the much-abused (but almost never implemented) 'colonial' Indian Police Act of 1861.

The reality is, India's political parties -- without exception -- have demonstrated no faith in, or commitment to, the rule of law, and have actively and persistently employed criminal force to distort electoral processes and outcomes, and are now increasingly relying on this source of 'power' to 'resolve' various administrative challenges confronting the state machinery. Instead of telling the District Collectors and the Superintendents of Police to implement the law and maintain order in their jurisdictions, political parties in power feel it more expedient to call on the local thug to stamp out any 'troubles' the administration is experiencing -- and particularly any political opposition that may come into play.

If this process continues -- as indeed, it must be expected to, in the utter absence of any willingness on the part of even a single political formation to challenge or reverse it -- it cannot be long before private armies become the norm across much of the country. These already dominate vast areas of the poorly governed parts of India -- and that is a very large part of the country. With organised efforts by mainstream parties to use 'informal' and party organs to engage in violent mobilisation, and the public advocacy of extra-legal measures by high elected officials such as West Bengal's Chief Minister and other senior CPI(M) apparatchiks, these proclivities will become further entrenched and make inroads into urban centres and state capitals as well. In many areas, people are already reluctant to take their complaints and grievances to the police, preferring to rely on kangaroo courts run by political thuggeries, Mafiosi and 'revolutionary' groups such as the Maoists. There is, everywhere, evidence of a rising anarchy, and an erosion of administrative capacities to a point where government has become irrelevant to the lives of a large proportion of the population, or where the agencies of government are visible only as an obstruction, a burden, or as active oppressors.

The reality is that there is an enveloping lack of even the most basic administrative competence in the political executive in India today. Politicians are, of course, masters of manipulation and deceit -- and these are the 'skills' that catapult them into positions of great power. But these are also the perversions that have done incalculable harm to the nation, and much of this harm has been focused on the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population.

The political executive can extract, from its administrative instrumentalities, as much as its own competence and vision allows. In Assam, in Punjab, and in Gujarat, under the worst of circumstances, but in periods where a clear political mandate was available, I was able to extract a hundred per cent and more from the state police forces. But in other areas and at other times, the same forces have appeared infirm, corrupt and incompetent. Certainly, in my personal experience in Chhattisgarh, the state police performed at a small fraction of its potential, and the blame must lie squarely where the Constitution of India vests the greatest power and responsibility -- the state's political executive and elected leadership. The 'administrative and political lapses' that Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would like to dismiss as an aberration in Nandigram are, in fact, a chronic malady of the political executive in almost all states today -- though this may be noticed only from time to time, when things go out of hand in atrocities, excesses, public disorder and mass violence.

K.P.S.Gill is former director-general of police, Punjab.He is also Publisher, SAIR and President, Institute for Conflict Management. This article was first published in The Pioneer