This corridor is not red

The Maoist bogey in Assam is a ploy to keep AFSPA in force 

Patricia Mukhim Shillong 

Union Home Minister P Chidambaram has on several occasions stated that militancy is declining rapidly in the Northeastern states. Judging by the current situation where a number of virulent insurgent outfits of the region, led by the NSCN (IM), are in ‘talks mode’ with Delhi, one would tend to agree with Chidambaram. Of course, fratricidal killings in Nagaland continue with impunity and the State would prefer to look the other way, for obvious reasons. It is easy to label the government of India as a demon incarnate, but how do you exorcise the demons in your own cupboards? 

While Nagaland presents a different conundrum, it is Assam that is worrying. The fake encounter killings happening with frightening frequency, the hue and cry generated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that Assam is suddenly turning into a ‘Maoist paradise’ and the fact that the media is lapping up all this information without as much as a hint of scepticism gives the sense that liberal thinking is on the wane. Nothing can be worse when mediapersons wilfully don the statist lens.       

Recently, a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team visited Assam and raised a stink over the extra-judicial killings. According to current statistics, Assam accounts for nearly half of the country’s encounter deaths registered by the NHRC. Of the 183 alleged fake encounter deaths (by the police, army and paramilitary forces) registered last year, 87 took place in Assam. Besides, recorded cases have increased considerably in the past three years. The 31 cases registered in 2009-10 rose to 54 in 2010-11, which again rose by over 50 per cent to 87 cases last year. 

For those who are used to looking at dead bodies as mere statistics, these killings might appear like collateral damage in the State’s attempt to control insurgent activities. Citizens who have lived under the shadow of the gun for years might even condone such deaths as being inevitable in a situation where the State has been given the right to ‘smoke the insurgents out of their holes’— a la George Bush post the 9/11 terror attacks.  

Encounter deaths are not uncommon when security forces are compelled to show results. To build up a water-tight case of a genuine encounter, they would have to raise the bogey of Maoism or Naxalism or newly constructed acronyms of new insurgent outfits. Hardened journalists know that if the State wants to label anyone a terrorist/Maoist it can plant weapons and grenades of all kinds and cook up a case to justify why a person was killed or arrested. The arrested person has very little defence for himself. How can we forget Dr Binayak Sen, a humane doctor, who was accused of being a Maoist for serving the depressed tribals of Chhattisgarh? The State is all-powerful and this is something only those who find themselves behind bars on concocted cases cooked up by the security forces will understand. 

If Chidambaram claims that the Northeast is trotting back to normalcy then security forces have to justify their continued existence in Assam and Manipur where they form a huge contingent. I have always wondered what would happen to the 55,000 forces, mostly Assam Rifles, if Manipur were to remain peaceful. Where will the forces be deployed? Can the State continue to support a force whose utility has diminished? 

 Assam accounts for half of the country’s encounter deaths. Of the 183 fake encounter deaths last year, 87 took place in Assam

With Myanmar getting back to being a ‘new democratic entity’— not entirely supportive of lending its forests to our insurgent outfits— it would be difficult for them to continue their subversive activities against the Indian State. Bangladesh has co-operated hugely to smoke out ‘our rebels’. No wonder we have a compliant Arabinda Rajkhowa now donning the mantle of a wise elder. 

There is an equally huge contingent of security forces in Assam. What’s ironic is Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s demand for 125 companies of central para-military forces (CMPF). This request was made to the prime minister during his recent visit to Assam. Gogoi has asked that the seven districts of Upper Assam be brought under the Integrated Action Plan (IAC) to arrest the growing influence of ‘Leftwing Extremism’ (LWE). At present, there are 97 companies of the CPMF. The chief minister said there is a need to include seven Maoist ‘infested’ districts under the IAC before they become a menace. 

You begin to wonder what sort of intelligence the chief minister is depending on. Is the Intelligence Bureau (IB) feeding him this strategic information? Or is it Military Intelligence (MI) that the state is depending on? Has the information been test-checked? 

Slogans such as “the red corridor is extending to the Northeast” are highly problematic. They are problematic because our only source of information is the IB or MI. Indeed, who else can counter these two agencies? 

The media does not have adequate resources to come out with a counterpoint. Yet, apart from the media, there is no non-partisan actor in Assam today. What is of concern is the media’s own inability to remain neutral. It was a witty scribe who once said that nothing can be worse for the media than when journalists become mere stenographers, taking down notes and vomiting them out as news. No questions, no doubts, no scepticism. 

We used to believe that life in Jammu and Kashmir is uncertain and that atrocities by security forces are unaccounted for. But we now know for a fact that ‘alleged fake encounter’ deaths are higher in Assam. Should this not be a rallying point for groups that believe in civil liberties? And mind you, those killed are usually powerless, voiceless rural folks. Their family members are too poor to take up their cases on the right platform. The fact that the NHRC has taken cognisance of the cases as probable fake encounters means that there are human rights activists who are keeping a vigil regarding such killings. 

If security forces have to justify their existence in Assam and Manipur, they have to construct a bogeyman. At this point, Maoism is that bogeyman. Even the NIA has to qualify its own presence. If there is nothing to be alarmed about, people would begin to question the need for such top-heavy agencies. 

Another argument given by the security forces is that the oppressive Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) cannot be revoked as long as they have to handle conflicts in the Northeast and Kashmir. Conflict analysts have posed the counter argument that AFSPA has not made things any better. It has only provided the State with unrestrained powers to curb the rights of citizens since both cannot co-exist. If the situation has improved, as the astute Chidambaram cogently argues, then it’s time for the military to withdraw from the Northeastern region and allow the police to take on their appointed roles. 

AFSPA, too, should go; otherwise Chidambaram is only contradicting himself. We have a Union Cabinet with collective responsibility. Defence Minister AK Anthony cannot remain intransigent about not revoking AFSPA. The Cabinet should decide that it has to go. Period Interestingly the Tarun Gogoi government is complicit in labelling all protestors against dams and other issues as Maoists. When the poor protest against injustice such as starvation deaths in tea gardens and the governance vacuum in Assam, they do not need an ideology. In Assam, the anti-dam protesters led by a spirited Akhil Gogoi have been purportedly linked to Maoism. Thankfully, Akhil Gogoi is politically visible and loud. He can mobilise the peasantry like no politician can. Hence, the State views him through a different prism. 

Others who are rotting in prisons and have been gunned down are not so fortunate. The tragedy today is that the death of voiceless villagers is important for the State to prove its claims that Assam is going the Dantewada and Gadchiroli way. 

These are issues that should trigger a debate across the Northeast. Will civil liberties groups wake up? And will the media ask more questions, and stop taking notes from security forces? We owe it to ourselves to remain objective, critical and distant from the powers that be. If the State makes a claim, we should put that through intense scrutiny. If we don’t, we would have sacrificed our right to inform at the altar of expediency.  

The writer is  Editor, The Shillong Times, Shillong

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2012