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Arming civilians a threat to sovereignty?

The Supreme Court’s recent obiter dicta on the subject of civilian armed groups were based essentially on the objection to the state ‘disbursing arms to civilians’ — and to the extent that this was, in fact, the case in the early phase of the Salwa Judum, this is both beyond the law and well beyond the dictates of sagacity within any rational counter-insurgency framework.

The principal ‘achievement’ of the Salwa Judum was to set up poor tribals as hapless targets for the better armed, trained and motivated Maoists, eventually triggering the displacement of close to 50,000 tribals and their internment in filthy, ill-protected and poorly provided ‘relief’ camps.

Even this could have opened up an opportunity for a judicious administration, if these settlements had been converted into ‘model villages’ with exceptional housing, sanitation, health, educational and vocational training facilities and total security. Instead, these remain places of utter misery and destitution, their management riddled with corruption.

Crucially, any effort to provoke and arm common people to directly confront armed insurgents constitutes a complete and immature abdication of responsibilities on the part of the state. Popular mobilisation may play some role in a counter-terrorist strategy well after the security forces have established their dominance in particular areas; but where they are unable even to effectively protect themselves, provoking the people in regions that are immensely under-policed can only invite retaliation and untold suffering on the heads of the innocent.

This, however, does not reflect on the legality and utility of raising auxiliary forces, such as special police officers organised into village defence committees, to execute supplementary and support tasks in areas where the security forces have established dominance.

As long as the raising of such auxiliary forces is in conformity with Sections 17 and 18 of the Indian Police Act, 1861, subordinating such forces to the authority of the police, and imposing the same duties and liabilities on them as ordinary police officers, there is no legal or constitutional bar, and such forces have been used to great advantage in many theatres of insurgency and terrorism, prominently including Punjab, J&K and Tripura.

(Published in The Economic Times, New Delhi, April 4, 2008)





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