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States should act responsibly

After the chain of coordinated attacks across Assam and at Dimapur in Nagaland commencing October 2, 2004, and lasting four days, which killed at least 54 people, and injured another 112, there has been much hue and cry about a ‘resurgence’ of violence in the Northeast, and much scurrying about by the powers-that-be in apparent efforts to ‘address’ the crisis.

In truth, distressing as the October incidents were, they did not represent any new trends or radical break with the past, other than in the fact that some of the attacks were located in Nagaland. Sporadic and extreme violence has been a reality in extended parts of the Northeast for decades. Independence Day this year had seen 17 persons – most of them children – killed at Dhemaji in Assam. On July 10, a grenade explosion in a cinema hall seriously injured 12 persons, though there were providentially no deaths in this case. On June 24, seven bas passengers were killed and 15 injured at Majgaon in Assam’s Sibsagar district. On March 24, suspected Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) terrorists killed at least 33 Karbi villagers in three separate places in the Karbi Anglong district. There are dozens of other incidents of terrorist violence in the region this year, each of which claimed multiple lives.

Each new outrage is ordinarily been met by brief and frenetic periods of ‘state response’, much of which is, at best, cosmetic. At its most practical, it has seldom ventured beyond the ‘battalion approach’ – throwing in more troops, Army or paramilitary, into the area of current crisis. When the locus of the crisis shifts – as it inevitably does, either within or outside the region – the troops are pulled out or relocated. In the meantime, each new incident gets the Government’s spin doctors – both at the Centre and the State – into action, and whatever they put out is eagerly lapped up by a singularly ill informed Press, which waxes eloquent on the latest excess and the ‘root causes’ that need to be ‘addressed’, providing justification to continued acts of profligacy under the guise of ‘policy initiatives’ taken in response. Indeed, Indian politicians, the Press and General Pervez Musharraf are not the only advocates of this theory, and many police officers have also taken to bemoaning ‘root causes’ in order to justify their own failures and incompetence.

The Centre’s response to the current spate of killings has been no different, and an ‘increased role for the Army and paramilitary forces in the Northeast’ is now being envisaged. There is also routine talk of ‘greater coordination’ of responses between the States, but past records are far from encouraging, and much of this will shortly be forgotten – though another and progressively redundant post at a senior level may well be permanently established.

The truth is, our policies for the containment and regression of the insurgencies in the Northeast have never gone beyond slogans, and this cannot change unless accountability is imposed all along the chain of ‘responders’ who are charged with the maintenance of law and order in the insurgency affected States. This chain extends from the Chief Minister, through the Home Minister, the Secretary, and the Director General of Police, down to the enforcement and intelligence officials at the district and thana levels where a breakdown occurs. And while the subordinate officials at the tail end of this chain are often shuffled about in feeble punitive actions after a major incident, the truth is that most of the responsibility for the prevailing situation lies at the highest levels of the chain, where counterproductive policies have long been drafted and forced upon the hapless enforcement agencies of the state. A particularly visible case in point in the present context is the Tarun Gogoi Government’s ill-considered abolition of the post of Inspector General – Operations, soon after its installation in power in May 2001. Today, over three years later, and in the wake of the October incidents, that post has been restored – yet no one can be held to account for a decision that was obviously wrong, that undermined the police capacity to engage and neutralize the insurgents, and that was prompted by inappropriate and populist political postures and a failure of political and administrative wisdom.

The Courts, today, have held senior Government Officials and the political Executive liable for a wide range of acts of dereliction – failure to impose pollution control norms and to protect the environment, to take the most frequent and ‘popular’ (among the judiciary) examples. It is now time that someone began to speak for the victims of terrorism – whom the state is visibly and repeatedly failing, and who have no apparent redress. It is time that the state and its executives were held liable for the suffering and the damage inflicted on citizens who it fails to protect – indeed, actively exposes to risk by its erroneous policies – and not just to the extent of the niggardly sums meted out on an ad hoc basis as ‘compensation’ to victims of terrorist attacks. If the Supreme Court can compensate the family of a terrorist to the tune of Rs. 12 lakh, the state should be held at least proportionately liable to the victims of terrorism.

As things stand today, the States of the Northeast are in fact ‘rewarded’ for insurgency and violence. As terrorist depredations mount and the situation is seen to worsen in a particular State, the Centre allocates increasingly larger sums of money – mostly in the form of grants – for ‘counter-insurgency efforts’, ‘upgradation and modernisation’ of the police, and ‘development’ so that the alleged ‘root causes’ of terrorism can be removed. Terrorist violence, consequently, is a bonanza for the States, and far from a ‘peace dividend’ the most vigorous dynamic in the Northeast is, in fact, an ‘insurgency dividend’. Crucially, all these very substantial sums of money simply disappear into a black hole and little impact can actually be detected on their intended ground. Indeed, the Centre has increasingly resorted to providing assistance in kind, rather than in cash, where this is possible, to minimize the scope of the gigantic ‘leakages’ that are a quotidian fact of life in the region. Thus, when repeated grants for the modernisation of the police produced little evidence of such modernisation in the target forces, the Centre changed tack and began to directly provide arms, vehicles and equipment to ensure that at least some of the intended effects were achieved. The scope of such direct material disbursements is, however, limited, and the fact remains that insurgency is the favourite milch cow for most of the Governments in the region.

It is only when the States – and individual officers of the State – directly feel the financial pinch of their dereliction that they will begin to take responsibility for the unending violence in the region. Each State should be heavily fined for dereliction of duty on a rising scale for each succeeding incidents, and the monies so collected should be used to provide adequate relief to the families of the victims of terrorism, and to provide their children an education and future security. It is only when their failures become a paragraph in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, and they are held accountable for these by Parliament, that State Governments will begin to act responsibly towards their citizens, and with determination against the terrorists. Till this happens, the Centre is only subsidising insurgency and bad governance in the region through its various policies.

(Published in The Pioneer, October 16, 2004)





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