Terrorism Update
Show/Hide Search
    Click to Enlarge

Today Bihar, tomorrow India?

A culture of violence has become synonymous with Bihar. In the first stage of the Panchayat Elections, held after 23 years, at least 17 persons were killed. The number is, for Bihar, far from astonishing. But the images of unashamed use of force, the absolute contempt for law and for the democratic process that the media captured on this occasion, were evidence of the utter putrefaction of the State’s polity. Men – including some candidates – simply stuffed ballots in full view of the camera; or picked up ballot boxes and walked away; and a murderer casually tucked his weapon into his waistband as the victim lay bleeding on the ground.

Despite this, however, there was evident enthusiasm among the larger mass of people for the election process, a sense of desperate hope that something might change. Despite the campaign of intimidation, the voter turnout in the Naxalite affected areas was high. Evidently, popular faith in the democratic process has not entirely vanished, and there is a belief that, even with the risks of violence attached, it is still worthwhile to cast a vote.

In itself, this is a positive sign. But in the context of the misgovernance and the complete breakdown of the law and order machinery that marks Bihar, it is not clear how useful this can be. Only weeks ago, RJD MP Mohammad Shahabuddin demonstrated the utter impotence of law and of the constitutional machinery in his direct confrontation with the State police – and later by openly threatening to kill the police officer who had led the operation against him in interviews to the media. And while he was available and accessible to every reporter who wished to meet him, the State government and higher police authorities claimed that he was ‘untraceable’. The meaning of democracy and the relevance of the ritual of elections in circumstances such as these are far from clear. And this is more the case in the context of Bihar’s unending caste wars, Naxalite violence and sectarian polarization that have resulted in an unending chain of violence.

But Bihar seems infinitely distanced from Delhi, and news of its barbarities and disorders elicits little more than cynicism and some ‘Laloo jokes’. To Delhi, this can be mildly satisfying, in some measure shoring up its flagging confidence over the character and quality of governance that it offers its own citizens, and as the national capital, to the rest of the nation. The complacence is dangerous, and the satisfaction illusory. Bihar was not always the misgoverned State it is today, and was among the better-administered provinces in the early years after Independence. It was only in the late 1960s that the downward spiral began, and in fact, the state of governance in Bihar, say, twenty or twenty-five years ago, would not have been much worse that the situation that currently prevails in Delhi. Increasingly open and unpunished nepotism and political violence; unconcealed corruption justified by persons holding high political office; a deepening nexus with organized criminal elements; complex collusive arrangements between corrupt politicians, administrators, businessmen, and those who operate entirely outside the ambit of the law; the pursuit of policies purely in partisan and personal interest, and often detrimental to the national and public interest; and progressive failures and inefficiencies in the ordinary, day to day tasks of administration in every department – these were the unnoticed beginnings of the end less than three decades ago in what has become India’s worst governed province. And these are now visible from day to day in the country’s capital city, and in the highest corridors of power.

What we are speaking of, then, may well be no more than a time lag, implying no fundamental difference of character. Bihar, in the most unfortunate sense possible, would then be the trendsetter, the leader, with the rest of the nation a straggling imitator of its past excesses.

In many ways, these trends are surprising. Election after election has proven that good governance is the only guarantee for electoral success, and in its absence, the outcome is purely randomized. And yet, every party – including the ‘ideology based’, ‘secular’ and ‘national’ parties – put their entire faith in conscienceless alliances, in communal and caste equations, and, eventually, failing all else, in the final gambit of political violence. Not a single party, today, has placed good governance at the center of its political platform and promise – nor indeed, given the existing profile of leadership, would any party making such a promise have any public credibility.

If this were not the case, even Bihar could turn around – and in a very short time. The State has been disastrously ruled by a succession of governments of different political hues. If one of its most inefficient regimes simply refuses to end, even after the last pretence of governance has been abandoned, it is because no one really believes that any other party – including the ‘national’ parties – would do anything differently.

Where is the way out of this political bankruptcy? The first element of any solution, inescapably, is that the entire issue of law and order must be put outside the sphere of partisan politics, and the machinery of justice administration – in all its elements, from policing, through the processes of investigation and prosecution, the judicial structure, and at the level of policy – must be restored to efficient integrity. There have been some cases in the recent past that suggest that individuals in high administrative and political offices are not entirely immune to the investigative process. Nevertheless, it is well known that the investigative agencies are severely hamstrung in any action against prominent individuals, and many of the sanctions for prosecution that are received are politically motivated, or forced by the pressure of public disclosure.

The onus of responsibility to initiate a change lies squarely on the present national leadership. Irrespective of its affiliations, its coalition compulsions, or the imperatives of personal relationships, it is this leadership that will have to put the national interest above all other considerations – for no other reason but that the reins are currently in its hands as we hurtle towards chaos.

The fist element of a reversal of the present pattern of disastrous politics is to defeat the culture of violence. The fact, however, is that this culture has taken root in an atmosphere of widespread justification. Today, politicians think nothing of striking deals with terrorists, mass murderers and the worst of organized criminals. This is not just the case with individual politicians, but true of governments themselves. Indeed, to take an example, the fact that one of the worst of terrorists that Punjab knew – Wassan Singh Zaffarwal – chooses to come back to Punjab, and that he evidently enters extended negotiations with the regime there, is proof that India is an extraordinarily comfortable place for those who choose the pathways of violence, even if they fail in their declared objectives. The Government of India is, today, either negotiating, or seeking to open negotiations, with every terrorist group and leader in the country. The discourse on political violence is dominated by a strong stream of justifications that condone such activities in terms of any real or imagined ‘grievances’ that may be projected by the perpetrators of even the most inhuman violence.

Long before reforms can be initiated, these attitudes and this orientation will have to be changed. The general belief that, because there is some inconvenience, injustice, or even suffering among sections of the people, they are justified in violent agitation, rioting or resorting to terrorism, has first to be challenged and eliminated from the nation’s political perspective. All democracies are imperfect, and India’s is perhaps far more imperfect than many others are. But, for all its inefficiencies and delays, it does offer mechanisms of resolution that are far more efficient than violence. The awareness and use of these mechanisms, first by the polity and the intelligentsia, and then by the larger mass of men, offers the possibility of a slow but sure resolution of the many conflicts and injustices that undermine the possibilities of peace, stability and development in India today.

(Published in The Pioneer, April 14, 2001)





Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.