Dividing Lines: Democracy’s warning signals

Despite all the violence, the Chhattisgarh syndrome needs a screen of normality.

Sometimes in the annals of history, a place evokes more emotions than the mere idea of territory. It becomes a symbol of a behavioural pattern, a fragment of cosmology and a metaphor for a way of life or thinking. For many, Varanasi is a place where one goes to die, Kolkata an emblem of poverty or failed revolutions. Goa carries a sense of something Indian and yet exotic. Each place becomes as it were a mentality, a syndrome and a style of behaviour. Chhattisgarh in that sense evokes no heroic moment of history. It marks a mentality of governance, of Machiavellian violence that can corrode Indian democracy. Chhattisgarh in that sense is a warning signal of an India that is becoming less democratic. Its symbolic grammar is something that we need to understand and exorcise. To the media today, Chhattisgarh evokes the violence of encounter deaths, of Naxalite battles and the sad fate of adivasis.

For tribals land is life, a way of life. It is livelihood and cosmology. For the companies it is revenue, rent and real estate. The logic is simple. If India is to develop, the tribe and the peasant must lose their land. Open genocide is painful, but development allows for deceit, for conceptual sleight of land where the innocent can be painted as evil. All the demonology that India needs is the word “Naxal”, which evokes threat, disorder, sedition, insurrection and all the forms of behaviour that threaten an orderly state. The word “Naxal” has become an omnibus one for all that the nation state detests. To label a community Naxal is to sign its death sentence, to call it an enemy of the state.
Development today loves this sleight of land. Genocide begins at least in Chhattisgarh with an act of labelling. One labels a tribal who objects to his land being taken as a Naxal or Maoist to deprive him of his rights. A tribal who resists is a law and order problem who can be arrested on grounds of security, jailed and tortured. The Chhattisgarh syndrome begins with this act of devious labelling as an act of deceit. To label a tribal as Naxal is to present him as a threat at the very moment one emasculates and disempowers him. The violence of development is compounded by the violence of security operations.

The word “security” allows for tremendous licence in a democracy which otherwise restrains power. Security is that epidemic word which allows for states of exception that allows one to suspend the rights available in a democracy. The word security allows you to paint protest as evil. The tribal is now a seditious creature who questions national purpose and priority. Now development as the highest form of patriotism demands elimination of the tribal. Police offices eliminating and torturing tribals are now heroes honoured for their services to the nation. Torture evokes the pragmatism of governance. If the lie and label is the beginning of governance, security is perpetuation of that lie.

The encounter death becomes the first great ritual of the new regime. It is usually a fake occurrence, a simulated act where an irritant or protester is eliminated. It is seen as an act of police hygiene where innocent people can be eliminated by labelling them as gangsters or insurgents. In fact, the police archives and Bollywood, that feeds on police lore, hails the encounter specialist as a special kind of expert and hero. Such a death is sanitisation of murder as a part of the hygiene of law and order. In these processes, the tribal might be the victim, but law is the first casualty. In fact, one uses law to eliminate the tribal. He is no longer the owner or possessor of land, he is a poacher, a trespasser and an encroacher to be shot or arrested. All that development as an enclosure movement needs is a sleight of hand that turns the rule of law into a law and order problem.

The new enclosure movements of our time begin with law as deceit. All it needs is the legitimisation of the word security. Security destroys the truth, makes information suspect. As a journalist Pavan Dahat put it: “It impairs the objectivity and fairness of enquiry.” The emasculation of the media is the next movement in the Chhattisgarh syndrome. The free and fearless press is a hallmark of democracy, but a free press is a nuisance in a place like Chhattisgarh. A free press might be curious and inquisitive. Worse, it might take the responsibility of human rights seriously. The press or parts of the press may want to tell the truth in a system where the lie is a form of convenience. Independent journalists are harassed, social scientists like Bela Batia presented as intruders. In fact, it doesn’t take much effort to create a local manch to protest against outsiders interfering and threatening development. Despite all the violence, the Chhattisgarh syndrome needs a screen of normality.

Law and order should be seen to be working. News reports and World Bank consultants must show it rising in the world of indicators like a taximeter on New Delhi’s roads. One should simulate which show life as normal, portray Naxals as giving up arms. One has to create simulate incidents where fake villages create a sense of order. The media often shows police-orchestrated events where villagers are lined up. The next day’s report announces it as “Naxals surrendering arms and asking for police protection”. The legitimacy of the police as sarkar must remain immaculate.

The beauty of the process called Chhattisgarh syndrome is that violence can be enacted within democracy in the name of democracy. All it needs is a touch of Orwellian language and an attempt to play on middle class anxieties. It is governance as tailor-made extermination refined to a fine act. Earlier, during the Naxalite phase, the emergency brutality is rebranded as security and reworked as a governance rite. As a set of propaganda and management technicians, it is awesome. It is what management experts call a social innovation incubated in the best behavioural science. Mass media cannot ask for me. This area gave us two of the greatest contributions to the Guinness book of corruption — Dantewada in Chhattisgarh and the Vyapam scandal in Madhya Pradesh. Even a cynical social scientist is awed by the nature of the achievement.

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