THEY are the world’s most powerful and largest democracies, respectively, but the United States and India have something most undemocratic in common.
They both outsource means to kill, torture and coerce people to private militias and lawless mercenaries. They do it under the cloak of national security.
The US government has outsourced its high-tech killing capabilities to corporate groups such as Blackwater to assist in its hunt for Al Qaeda and to better secure the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Indian government has made it a tradition to raise armed militias to subdue revolts in its more restive regions. Both these chest-thumping democracies have used the dimly lit backdoor to subvert their own constitutions and legal covenants.
Last week, Dr Binayak Sen, a doctor who has spent his life working among the poorest of the poor in India’s tribal districts and former secretary of the Chhattsigarh chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial court.
His purported crime is to have been a courier for members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). His real crime was to have been among the first to expose the crimes of the vicious, government-sponsored tribal militia, the Salwa Judum or ‘Purification Hunt’.
Copies of Marxist literature and a fabricated letter were cited to link Binayak Sen with the Maoist rebels. Salwa Judum was begun in Chhattisgarh on the model of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, Kashmir’s notorious vigilante militia that was propped up by the state. The Indian government denies using private groups to deal with its security issues.
The lid was blown inadvertently when US diplomatic cables from Delhi were published by WikiLeaks. In a reference to an active member of Kashmir’s dreaded Ikhwan militia, the then American ambassador in Delhi counselled that the man be denied a US visa.
The secret cable sent by US ambassador to India David Mulford on June 4, 2007 in reference to Usman Majid’s visa application, said: “Majid is a leader of the pro-GOI [Government of India] Ikhawan-ul-Musilmeen [sic] paramilitary group, which is made up of former Kashmiri terrorists who have surrendered to the GOI. Beginning in the early 1990s, India’s security forces used Ikhwan to combat terrorism in the Srinagar Valley. Known for its brutal and corrupt practices, Ikhwan is notorious for its use of torture, extra-judicial killing, rape and extortion of Kashmiri civilians suspected of harbouring or facilitating terrorists.”
The cable spoke of a nexus between the Ikhwan and India’s domestic Intelligence Bureau.
In a way, what the American ambassador said about the Ikhwan Dr Binayak Sen knew to be true of the Salwa Judum, or perhaps worse.
As the facts have revealed, the Judum was founded not so much to track or hunt down Maoist rebels as to clear the passage of local resistance groups to enable corporate access to Chhattisgarh’s largely untapped mineral resources.
The Frontline magazine made the following connection. “In an instance of truly Orwellian coincidence, the Memorandum of Understanding for the Tata steel plant was signed on June 4, 2005, two days after the formal launch of the controversial Salwa Judum programme in the Bastar and Dantewada districts, and marked, in the eyes of many, the point of coalescence of the administration, industry and the security agencies. The state government also signed an MoU with the Essar group the same day.”
Meanwhile, the Tata proposal had kicked off a controversy in Raipur, the state capital, with the issue being raised in the assembly too.
Soon after the deal was signed, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Chhattisgarh government refused to share the details, claiming that disclosure was specifically prohibited by a clause in the MoU.
It refused to give copies of the MoU to members of the opposition in the house. The MP for the constituency encompassing Lohandiguda — the area earmarked for the project — went on record stating that he had no detailed information about the project. Copies of the MoU were leaked over a period of months and by the time the documents became easily available a full-scale protest was under way in the 10 villages earmarked for the project.
As democracies, the US and India should be seen as global pacesetters for probity and justice. But are they that? One or two key markers suggest that far from being comrades in a joint quest for liberal ideals they swear by, both willingly ignore if also indulge each other’s transgressions of fundamental human rights.
A separate WikiLeaks exposé put the focus on Kashmir’s torture chambers. Damningly for the US, the revelations came just weeks after President Obama, looking for American jobs via Indian economic enterprise, was forced to observe a discreet silence on the issue in Delhi. A word out of place was thought to be enough to jeopardise the business agenda.
The WikiLeaks revelations that the International Committee of the Red Cross had frequently briefed American diplomats about the torture regime in Kashmir only underscored the irony of it all. To top it all, Mr Obama was pointing fingers at Myanmar for abuses which he said he wanted India to help correct.
US indulgence of India’s human rights transgressions is not new. The Bush regime maintained a deafening silence over the communal mayhem in Gujarat in 2002 when state-backed vigilante groups massacred Muslims. Only much later did State Department official Christina Rocca condemn “all violence” perpetrated in the state. Later, she brazenly assured the US Congress that Indian courts were robust and would deal with the outrage against the Muslim minorities in a fair manner.
It is another matter that India’s Supreme Court had to double guess Christina Rocca’s assertion. Its intervention helped move some of the most serious cases of killings to courts outside Gujarat, so much for the American trust in India’s legal system.
Sharing of the state’s monopoly on violence and coercive power with vigilante groups has been an old Indian tradition, which goes back to the rise of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Its job was to break left-controlled trade unions with lumpen power much like right-wing Europe in the beginning of the last century. This power has been vested in other groups, such as the Hindutva storm troopers.
Often, to bring home the irony of it, they take recourse to the legal route to harass and hound their quarries.
In an orchestrated attack on the artist M.F. Husain, Hindutva activists filed hundreds of criminal cases against him all over the country claiming his work had ‘hurt’ their religious sentiments. Eventually, caught in this legal snare, Husain fled the country.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.