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The Lowest Form of Politics

As the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan drags on, with the corpses of the protestors killed in Police firing becoming a principal instrumentality of mobilisation and partisan political sparring, certain crucial realities relating to patterns of Gujjar violence during their campaign for Scheduled Tribe status remain largely ignored.

The sanitized version in the media tells us that '15 persons including one policeman' were killed at Bayana in 'clashes' and 'police firing' on Friday, May 23, 2008 -- the incident that sparked the current crisis in Rajasthan, which has resulted in a cumulative toll of 42 lives. Some reports mention, almost as a matter of trifling fact, that the policeman was, in fact, lynched -- but this hardly detracts from the enormity of the 'police excess' in having opened fire to kill 14 protestors. Subsequent reportage and commentary focuses largely on the police 'brutally' suppressing the righteous rage of the justifiably aggrieved protestors, on the rightness or otherwise of the Gujjar demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes, or on partisan politics, both in the state and at the centre.

But the pattern of violence in this agitation demands close and relentless scrutiny. The reality -- something that even the police administration in the state appears to be willing to brush under the carpet -- is that the 'lynching' of the policeman occurred well before the police had initiated any use of force, and was extraordinarily brutal, even by the disgraceful standards earlier established by Indian mobs -- including the Gujjars themselves, during their agitation in May-June 2007. As police officials were attempting to talk to the protestors who had assembled at Bayana, they were attacked. In the melee that ensued, one of the policemen was separated from his contingent. He was, first, beaten and then brutally beheaded.

The mob tore up rail tracks, torched police vehicles, and it was only after rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets failed to disperse the protestors that the police resorted to firing. On the next day, May 24th, an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 armed Gujjars, many of them bearing firearms, attacked the Sikandra police station and tried to set it on fire. A CRPF officer was shot in the leg and three policemen were severely beaten after their rifles had been snatched. Public property was also attacked, and at least two vehicles were torched. Once again, the police opened fire after teargas and rubber bullets failed to deter the mobs. A police post was also set ablaze in the Nadoti tehsil of Karauli district. Reports indicate that some dreaded dacoits from the Chambal have also been enlisted in the agitation.

In each preceding case, it is evident that the violence was unprovoked, premeditated and intentionally targeted the police. Significantly, during the last round of the agitation in 2007, in a comparable and cynical bid to escalate tensions and provoke greater violence, the Gujjars had lynched two policemen, who were armed only with lathis and had been deployed under specific instructions not to use force against the agitators.

In any civilized order, this kind of violence would immediately have delegitimised the cause and discredited the leadership of such a movement. In India, it appears to validate such a cause and leadership, with support coming from the most unexpected quarters. This is clearly the lowest form of politics, but it is currently receiving support and encouragement from some of the highest levels in the country.

Nowhere in the world is murder -- and particularly the murder of a policemen -- considered a part of legitimate democratic protest or dissent.

In India, on the other hand, killing cops is simply par for the course, something that attracts little odium and no consequences.

The idea that has taken deep root in this country is that if you have a political cause, everything is justified. This is compounded further by the fact that 'political' mobs and their leaders have been accorded complete legal immunity, and there is absolutely no fear of retribution or penalties when even the most heinous of acts is committed. A case in point is that, while FIRs were registered for the lynching of the policemen last year, there has been no follow-up, and this inaction is evidently at least part of the political compromise that was eventually arrived at between the Rajasthan government and the Gujjar leadership in June 2007. FIRs have similarly been registered in the various incidents of violence this time around -- but any expectation that these cases will be vigorously pursued and that the guilty will eventually be punished would be naïve in the extreme. Those who committed murder, arson and other crimes during the agitation last year suffered no penalties; their cases were simply buried -- sacrificed to political expediency. That is why the same crimes are repeated this year, with clear confidence that the state will, eventually, write off all charges to reach an 'understanding' with the Gujjar leadership.

None of this is intended to reflect on the hideously flawed system of caste based reservations, or the merits or otherwise of the Gujjar demand for Scheduled Tribe status. It is not even about the transparent spectacle of an unscrupulous political leader seeking to consolidate his caste fiefdom through cynical violence, and partisan political formations using the opportunity to embarrass rivals.

This is beyond partisan and factional politics. This is as focused an attack on the unity and integrity of the Indian state as were the serial blasts at Jaipur -- and far more insidious in its impact. This is about the remarkable and premeditated savagery, and the sustained criminality, of the Gujjar agitation. It is ironic that, while we worry about Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorists coming to India, policemen are butchered and beheaded in full public view by Indian citizens -- and the state and its agencies stand by in utter impotence.

It must be abundantly clear that what we are currently witnessing in Rajasthan cannot be the politics -- or the policing -- of an emerging 'global power'. Indeed, India's politics and politicians have become the nation's greatest disgrace.

India will have to pay a terrible price for the continuous undermining, emasculation, and progressive devaluation and disempowerment of the police, as well as for the sustained erosion of administrative authority and the rule of law, by politicians and the media. For all their supposed brutalisation, inefficiency and incompetence, this thin line of khaki is all that stands between us and utter anarchy; between our pretensions to 'world power' and a banana republic.

(Published in The Outlook, New Delhi, June 6, 2008)





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