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Civil society as the watchdog of democracy

Civil society protests in India – for justice for the victims of Godhra, for those living around the Koodankulam nuclear facility, for those affected by AFSPA – are keeping democracy alive in India. The state’s attack on such non-violent activism in support of progressive causes is reason for grave concern, writes Rohini Hensman

civil society in India
Gujarat, 10 years after the riots. Photo courtesy Firstpost.com

‘Civil society’ is a much-abused term in India. All it really means is capitalist society, with its multiple divisions and contradictions between capitalists and workers, majority and minorities, upper and lower castes and so on, as well as competition within each category. Its ‘other’ is political society or the state, which is supposed to rise above the struggle of ‘each against all’ and manage it so that civil society doesn’t tear itself apart. In a democracy, in theory, it is in addition supposed to protect the interests of weaker and more vulnerable sections from depredations by the powerful.

There are a few instances where this actually happens. But in general, the reality is much more complicated. Often, individuals carry their greed and prejudices with them from civil society into the state. Or they abuse the power that is vested in them as officials of the state. There are times when one arm of the state is in conflict with another, as when a court directs the state government of Gujarat to compensate those who lost their property in the pogroms of 2002 and the state government objects. In a democracy, it is even possible that right-wing groups within civil society, in collusion with fascist political forces, seek to overthrow a democratic state. If the theoretical picture of a good state and conflict-ridden civil society is inaccurate, so is the opposite picture of an evil state and virtuous civil society.   

Having said that, however, it is undoubtedly true that the more wealthy and powerful sections of society have a greater chance of manipulating or dominating the state, and this means that the poor and powerless have to resort to protests, legal challenges and mass movements to get their voices heard. Without such activism, democracy would very soon deteriorate into oligarchy or majoritarianism. It is thanks to the plethora of such protests in India that democracy has been kept alive.

Fascist movements and the state

February 28, 2012 marks 10 years since the start of the horrific carnage in which thousands of innocent Muslims were massacred in Gujarat. The victims continue to suffer to this day, with the state government posing massive obstacles to justice or even compensation for the losses they have suffered; indeed, ethnic cleansing and ghettoisation have continued even after the rapes and killings stopped. The evidence points to the involvement of civil society organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal in collusion with the police, Intelligence Bureau (IB), and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers including chief minister Narendra Modi, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) acting as a connecting link.

The tradition hitherto has been for the perpetrators of crimes against minority communities to have complete impunity, whether the slaughter involves thousands -- as in the Nellie massacre of Muslims (1983), the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi (1984) or the massacre of Muslims in Bombay (1992-93) -- or smaller numbers, as in countless other pogroms scattered throughout the country. Commissions of inquiry may identify the perpetrators accurately, but at most a few low-level goons are apprehended; those who plan, instigate and control the murder and arson have never been touched.

In the case of Gujarat, for the first time, this tradition has been challenged in a sustained manner. Despite almost insurmountable odds, hundreds of courageous victims, with the support of civil society organisations like Citizens for Justice and Peace and Jan Sangharsh Manch, have pursued cases against those who were responsible for the violence. These have been accompanied by parallel cases against those who carried out around 20 fake encounter killings of Muslims falsely accused of plotting to assassinate Modi. There are a few cases where perpetrators have been convicted; but in the vast majority, the struggle goes on. There is a broader constituency countrywide, including groups like Anhad, that has been supporting the quest for justice for the victims and a reversal of the fascist transformation of the state in Gujarat.

 We now have mounting evidence to show that from the beginning of the 21st century, the Sangh Parivar has been supplementing its strategy of communal pogroms (which continued, as in Kandhamal in 2008) with terrorist attacks consisting of bomb blasts. When the cases are put together, as Subhash Gatade does [1], it is evident that their number and geographical distribution leaves Islamist terror in India lagging far behind, although one would never believe it if one followed only the mainstream media. The new strategy relies on the myth that ‘all terrorists are Muslims even if all Muslims are not terrorists,’ so that even when all the victims are Muslims, it would be assumed that the perpetrators are Muslims. While the number of people killed may be smaller than in pogroms, a whole community can be demonised in this manner.

Once again, as Gatade documents, the terror attacks are carried out by members of civil society organisations like the VHP, RSS, Abhinav Bharat, Sri Ram Sene, Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and Sanatan Sanstha. Many elements in the mainstream media assist by blaming Muslims for attacks carried out by Hindutva terrorists. But this strategy, even more than that of communal pogroms, relies on collusion by elements in the state, which, he shows, has been provided by the police, state and central IBs, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Anti-Terrorist Squads (ATSs), and BJP state governments, all of which have helped to pin the blame on innocent Muslims while allowing the real culprits to escape and kill again.

The honourable exception to this rule was Maharashtra ATS chief Hemant Karkare, who meticulously followed the clues in the Malegaon blast case of 2008 and was well on the way to unravelling a massive network of Hindutva terror when he was killed under mysterious circumstances during the 26/11 terror attacks in Bombay. (‘Mysterious’ because his autopsy report shows he was shot five times from the top of the shoulder downwards, suggesting the killer was someone sitting behind him inside the police vehicle rather than terrorists outside [2]). The National Investigation Agency, set up by Home Minister P Chidambaram after the 26/11 attacks, has followed up on many of Karkare’s leads. But innocent Muslims are still being blamed for terrorist attacks, and one way in which people in civil society have combated Hindutva terrorism is by challenging the fabrication of evidence against innocents. This has been done by journalists in independent media like Tehelka, social activists like those in the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, and lawyers like Shahid Azmi, who paid with his life in February 2010 for proving that his Muslim clients had been framed by the police.

Three of the most fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution are at stake here: the rights to life, to equal protection of the law, and to equality before the law. But the victims and activists engaged in combating Hindutva communalism and terror are doing more than defending these rights: they are defending Indian democracy itself, which, as M S Golwalkar made clear long ago and Subramanian Swamy reiterated recently, the Sangh Parivar seeks to replace with a Hindu Rashtra in which non-Hindus would have no rights.

When protecters become predators

An unintended by-product of the Anna Hazare movement in 2011 was some welcome publicity for Irom Sharmila’s 11-year fast for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Like several other draconian laws, AFSPA allows state security forces the power to act against civilians, upto and including killing them, with virtual impunity. It was after witnessing such a massacre of civilians in Manipur, and realising there would be no redress because of AFSPA, that Sharmila embarked upon her marathon fast, during which the authorities, who keep her locked up, have kept her alive by nasogastric feeding. She fasts alone, but has many supporters in the Northeast and throughout India.

AFSPA has unsuccessfully been challenged in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it violates the right to life, but it also violates the right to equal protection of the law (which is denied to the victims of crimes by the security forces) and the right to equality before the law (since perpetrators in the security forces are effectively placed above the law). The result has been to turn forces vested with the power to protect civilians into predators who rape and kill civilians with impunity. That the armed forces chiefs cling tenaciously to this ‘privilege’ is evident from their obdurate opposition to the repeal or even amendment of this law, even when it is proposed by other state actors.

A country in which state security forces routinely turn their guns on the civilian population cannot be called a democracy. This does not happen in most parts of India, but in some states it is the rule rather than the exception. That these tend to be states where there is anti-state militancy is no excuse: far from solving the problem of militancy, indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians generally make it worse. Therefore even in such states, as Sharmila and her supporters correctly contend, it should not be lawful for security forces to rape and kill unarmed civilians, and if they engage in such behaviour, they should be punished just like anyone else. But is anybody in the state listening?

The Pathribal case, in which five civilians were killed by army personnel in a fake encounter, may answer this question. The army, as usual, claims that its personnel cannot be prosecuted without sanction from the central government, which the ministry of defence has always refused to give even in the few cases where the ministry of home affairs has given the go-ahead. But on  February 4, 2012, a Supreme Court bench of Justices B S Chauhan and Swatanter Kumar told the army that rape and murder committed by its personnel should be considered normal crimes, and there should be ‘no question of sanction’ from the government before prosecution of offenders in such cases, since AFSPA gives only very limited protection for action ‘in discharge of duty’ [3].

The Court’s observations are eminently logical, and echo the argument implicit in Sharmila’s protest. What would it say about India if army personnel could claim, ‘We raped these women in discharge of our duty’ or ‘We rounded up and killed these innocent civilians in discharge of our duty,’ and the judiciary accepted their claims? Wouldn’t this be an admission that India is not, in fact, a democracy where the rule of law prevails? Yet as of now, it is not clear that the Supreme Court’s order will reflect its observations. Irom Sharmila’s struggle for democracy and the rule of law is not yet over.

Nuclear power versus the right to life

India’s model of development has rightly been criticised for allowing an elite few to become obscenely rich while 48% of its children are stunted due to malnourishment, as a recent Save the Children survey showed, resulting in extremely high under-5 mortality rates [4]. Although the central and state governments can be held responsible for these unnecessary deaths to the extent that they are the result of faulty policies, they cannot be accused of killing these children deliberately. But what do we say when a policy that is known to cause deaths is undertaken? The projected expansion of the number of nuclear power plants is such a policy.

An impressive and sustained campaign against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) gained publicity in 2011, although it had been going on for over 10 years. The important role played by women was particularly apparent. Several planned nuclear power plants in other parts of the country faced similar protests, and all received a boost after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Anyone with an iota of imagination would be able to empathise with these protesters completely. The ghastly consequences of an accident in a nuclear power plant were reported day after day; no sane person would want to run that risk. Yet, having failed to answer safety-related questions of the local people to their satisfaction, the government resorted to repression of the protesters [5].

It is not surprising that people are sceptical about government guarantees of absolute safety. The state government of MP swore that the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal was absolutely safe shortly before the disaster that killed thousands. And in Kurosawa’s prophetic film Mount Fuji in Red, a woman fleeing a nuclear disaster in Japan laments that they were told the nuclear plant was absolutely safe. If there is no chance of accidents in the planned nuclear plants in India, why are the countries selling them so adamantly opposed to a Nuclear Liability Act that could make them liable for an accident which, they say, will never happen? Why will no commercial insurance company touch any nuclear power plant with a barge-pole? Why is it always tax-payers who have to pick up the tab? And why are the victims of the disasters that never should have happened never compensated adequately?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s allegation that the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) represents foreign interests is especially egregious since, as Praful Bidwai pointed out in November 2011, ‘Former DAE [Department of Atomic Energy] secretary Anil Kakodkar told Marathi daily Sakaal (Jan 5) that India is handing out lucrative reactor deals to foreign suppliers for their governments’ support to the US-India nuclear deal: "We also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and … companies …America, Russia and France were … made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them …."’ [6] In other words, if anyone is acting at the behest of foreign powers, it is the Indian government!

It is to the credit of some people in these countries that, despite the loss of exports it would represent for them, they do not want these deals to go through. There is increasing evidence, in scientific articles in the International Journal of Cancer and elsewhere, that even without any accidents, nuclear plants cause deaths from cancer (including leukemia) due to routine radioactive emissions [7]. As nuclear waste -- which continues to be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, and for the safe disposal of which there is no method to date -- mounts, the danger increases exponentially. This is why French Green MP Anny Poursinoff objected to the sale of the Areva nuclear plant to be built at Jaitapur, asking ‘Why offer our Indian friends such a poisoned present?’ [8] Anyone who has gone through the heart-breaking experience of watching a loved one die of cancer would agree with her. Contrary to Dr Singh’s statement that ‘thinking people’ support nuclear power, it is precisely thinking people who oppose it. Those who support it are either ignorant of the human suffering it causes, or too callous to care. Neither category can be classified as ‘thinking people’.

Seen from this perspective, the anti-nuclear protesters in Koodankulam, Jaitapur and elsewhere should be honoured for their struggle to defend the right to life of present and future generations. If more electricity is needed, India is blessed with plentiful sources of renewable energy; unlike nuclear energy, these can be exploited without resorting to human sacrifice. Indeed, experts have shown that if the abnormally high transmission and distribution losses in India are brought down to a more normal level, that alone would save more power than all the new nuclear power plants put together would produce.

Watchdogs of democracy

These are just three examples of hundreds of causes taken up by civil society activists, and the very fact that the struggles are still ongoing and their outcome is not clear shows that the legislature, judiciary and executive cannot, by themselves, safeguard democracy and the rule of law. It is a cause for grave concern that non-violent activism in support of progressive causes is currently under so much attack by the state. Unless this trend is reversed, democracy in India is doomed.   

 (Rohini Hensman is an activist and independent scholar working on issues of workers’ rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities in India and Sri Lanka, and globalisation. She has written extensively on these issues, her most recent book being Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons From India. Her publications include two novels)

References
[1] Subhash Gatade, Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India, Pharos Media, New Delhi, 2011
[2] http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2010/06/3562?page=0,5     
[3] http://www.tehelka.com/story_main51.asp?filename=Ws080212Jammu_Kashmir.asp
[4] http://everyone.org/wp-content/uploads/CB_DA_INDIA_Lores1.pdf
[5] http://www.thestatesman.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=392221&catid=38
[6] http://www.sacw.net/article2389.html
[7] http://www.truth-out.org/french-scientists-childhood-leukemia-spikes-near-nuclear-reactors/1328036956   and  http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report_dna-investigations-deaths-confirm-cancer-risk-near-n-reactors_1637359      
[8] http://www.annypoursinoff.fr/2012/02/jaitapur-non-merci/

Infochange News & Features, February 2012