Anatomy of Chidambaram’s Tehelka Interview: “Give me 72 hours!

November 17, 2009

By Sadanand Patwardhan. Nov 17, 2009.

Shoma Chaudhary of Tehelka interviewed P Chidambaram recently (“ Halt the violence! Give me 72 hours”). He is arguably among the most articulate ministers of UPA government. His exhortation to Maoists to suspend violence sounds most reasonable. Dialogue is impossible in the climate of war, he chimes. He has given very lawyerly answers harping on semantics.

Elsewhere Maoist leader Azad, spokesperson of Central Committee, was interviewed by Manoj C G of Indian Express. Maoists will not make the mistake of positional head on war with government forces like the LTTE, stated Azad. Report claims that Azad said, “All our plans, policies, strategy and tactics will be based entirely on the active involvement of the vast masses of people in this war of self-defense. The enemy class cannot decimate us without decimating the entire population in regions we control”. Ominous portends for the tribals caught as they are between the devil & the deep sea. Is Chidambaram sincere in his offer? He doesn’t say if security forces buildup will be halted, assault suspended, for talks to happen. He tells elsewhere that security forces will not fire unless fired upon. Who will know who fired first? A close look at what he said is warranted to see if his words inspire confidence. Do the actions on the ground validate those words?

Chidambaram : “I said, no, the army will not be called for these internal security operations. I said, if necessary, the special forces in the army, which is the commando unit, may have to be called in for a special situation.”

Responding to whether Army will be called this is what Chidambaram had said. The veil of secrecy under which government chooses to operate has frustrated many a RTI activists for even peacetime issues. Who is to know whether the units of Army employed in the jungles of remote districts are commando units, Signals Corp, Logistics unit, or plain infantry? What would be their numbers & role? Isn’t this straight & simple nitpicking?

Chidambaram : “I said we are wedded to a democratic republican form of government, so civil society has to choose whether we want this form of government or an armed liberation struggle and a dictatorship of the proletariat”.

While Maoists violence hits the headlines, the media is mostly blind to state violence, especially when it repressively forfeits the rights of the poor & marginalized in the ‘Development Game’. He cleverly changes the paradigm of choice to the form of government or the form of struggle and exhorts that this choice cannot be ducked. Real choice really lies between ‘enriching the rich at the cost of tribals’ or ‘enriching the tribals by ignoring the rich’. When the state betrays major sections of its populace, when instead of protecting it starts preying on them, then protests & opposition to it may take different forms. While state has promised several times in the past & present to redress injustices (take for instance Resettlement & Rehabilitation of people displaced by Projects & Dams), seldom have these commitments been met in full measure. He pleads utter helplessness about the well documented violence by Chhattisgarh state sponsored vigilante group – Salwa Judum.

What civil activists have been pointing out is that poor tribals have no choice between the State violence and the Maoist violence (click here for a recent article by Saroj Giri dissecting this paradigm of tribals “caught in the middle”Ed.). In this destructive game, tribals are forced to choose one or the other evil. If he is bereft of ideas other than using state terror, let him give a chance to Himanshu Kumar, who told Jyoti Punwani of TOI, “I can bring peace in a week. You withdraw your forces and provide the amenities that were stopped after Salwa Judum started: doctors, schools, aanganwadis”. Either way, whether Himanshu Kumar fails or succeeds, Chidambaram will be a winner. He should do this if he is honest about his protestations about the imperfections of our democracy. Chidambaram overlooks another blatant imperfection, ‘While the poor vote in hope for change, money bags have already preselected the candidates in election fray from among whom they will be choosing’. So whatever the outcome of elections, democracy works for the rich. A neat arrangement isn’t it?

Chidambaram : “I have made it very clear that anyone who is arrested by the police – State or Centre – must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours…… I have made a thorough investigation and, to my knowledge, there is not a single torture chamber under the control of the central agencies. If you think there is one, if you suspect there is one, let me know where it is, and I know how to locate it and dismantle it”.

It is one thing to make ‘clear’ and quite another that it is ensured. There are many things made ‘clear’ even in our constitution, which on oath he & his government are committed to defend, but still remain moth worn solemn pledges. Who knows if this is said only to fool public? Prime Minister had instructed his security detail to be sensitive to public concerns in the wake of tragedy at PGIMER-Chandigarh during his visit. Does anyone believe a different approach will take place next time? This culture of abject depravity in the organs of state can’t change so easily. I possess direct knowledge that in Pune not infrequently suspects are in Police custody without a formal arrest, so the question of producing them before the magistrate doesn’t arise. Admittedly at times this is done by few good policemen to avoid unnecessarily incarcerating a suspect by pressing a formal charge early when investigating a serious crime, but such cases are few.

If Chidambaram can’t prevent such extra-judicial arrests in a metropolitan region like Pune, what can one make of his boast of making it clear to all police functionaries? Most city dwellers I know belonging to middleclass would prefer not to come in contact with the police. At the least they fear the uncivil behavior they may have to contend with. Yet, same persons are perfectly willing to let State feed tribals to same police & security forces. The lines about ‘torture chambers’ surreally seem to come out of the primer written by Donald Rumsfeld. Are central agencies practicing ‘rendition’ like CIA, by handing over prisoners for torture to state security agencies? What else one is to make of his categorical assurance only about central agencies? Is custodial torture a myth, a creation of delusional masses, despite several documented instances to the contrary?

Chidambaram : “…………..beyond prevailing upon the states to change their attitude towards law enforcement, beyond urging them, nudging them, prevailing upon them, there is not much I can do. It falls entirely within the jurisdiction of the state chief ministers to meet the requirements of the Constitution, justice and fair play”. ……“All this was possible in two and a half months because we had broadly asserted control over these areas and, for reasons that I do not know, while the Maoists were indulging in acts of violence here and there, they did not interfere with what we were doing on the ground. At least in these districts”.

A rare admission slips in that Maoists didn’t interfere in the activation of PDS, distribution of free ration to BPL families and Old age pensions etc. in Jharkhand that is under president’s rule. He claims these measures have redressed people’s grievances. What stops centre from replicating this model in other states? Activists like Himanshu Kumar are demanding exactly that. But there Chidambaram pleads utter helplessness behind List-II of the constitution. A virtual admission that state governments (obviously, Non Congress) are the problem. The constitution was not a hindrance when Bihar was put under president’s rule in 2005 by sending a cabinet resolution in an unholy rush at midnight to Kalam for signing in Moscow where he was on a state visit. A decision that was struck down as patently unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Collusion with the very state governments by the center for a well coordinated assault on Maoists doesn’t pose a problem, but collaboration for implementing welfare schemes and making administration work does. Some strange logic it may seem. Or is it?

Chidambaram : “I think these MOUs have been signed over a period of time with different governments, long before Maoist violence escalated to this level”.

The point is that most of these MOUs signed by State Government are guarded like Swiss bank accounts. Advocate Sudha Bhardwaj, an activist with Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, told of how repeated attempts by RTI activists to obtain copies have been zealously thwarted by state government. What is this secrecy in a matter that should have been transparent & placed in public domain without even asking? It is these opaque ways of functioning that help enrich political class (Madhu Koda) & companies (Illegal mining in Orissa worth hundreds of billions) at the expense of poor tribals. When tribals started resisting their illegal eviction from their lands for mining to begin, problems erupted and now the centre is coming to the rescue of states to finish the agenda once & for all. Chidambaram first alludes to a ‘sinister design’ theory & then denies it, but that is exactly what has happened with the state sponsored Salwa Judum movement, which he says even he decried to the Chief Minister.

Chidambaram : “That’s not a bad argument! Why don’t the people elect someone worthy? I can understand they elect him the first time, why do they elect him the second time if he’s corrupt or a knave?”

When confronted with facts that Land acquisition act, SEZ act, Rehabilitation Bill etc. came under scrutiny only when poor revolted against the patent injustice meted out to them, Chidambaram glibly answers that people should elect better legislators. When elections require support of moneybags & musclemen, can good people ever hope to get elected? Can poor ever hope to have their true representative elected? Can they expect their representative to remain loyal to them resisting the temptation to be co-opted by the establishment?

Chidambaram : “There’s nothing wrong with the mining plan itself. The point is, we don’t enforce what we lay down. People get away with impunity by cheating or bribing or violating the plan because the executive is weak”. “The vigilance commission; the information commission; the consumer court; the environment court; the court of law, the CAG, the legislature. More than anyone else, the legislature. Why don’t they exercise their powers? Why do they feel emasculated and enfeebled?”

Thank you Mr. Chidambaram for telling us that. It took a public spirited activist like Rabi Das again to file a PIL in Supreme Court and get an order halting some 64 illegal mining operations in Keonjhar, Sundargarh & other districts in Orissa. This theft of national wealth took place not without the active connivance of various organs of state. It may amount to some INR 700 Billion according to Das. You are the executive Mr. Home Minister and only thing that you do is pointing fingers at every other organ of the state and lament weakness of the corrupt executive. You are present in the legislature too. You should not be asking those questions, you should be answering them.

Chidambaram : “As far as police picking up wrong people goes, I ask, why did the judge remand them? The judge then failed in his duty. …… The point is, I can’t sit here in far away Delhi and say release someone who the police is producing before the magistrate in West Bengal.”

True, the judge may have failed in putting 14 innocent women in custody in Lalgarh. But it was also the failure of the executive to arrest those women on trumpeted charges. He finds himself in far away Delhi to undo the wrong and yet believes that his instructions to police to follow the rule of law will be obeyed. When Chhatradhar Mahato, who led the People’s committee against police atrocities in Lalgarh, was arrested on 26th September, Director General of Police (DGP-West Bengal) Bhupindar Singh announced that the tribal leader had an LIC policy worth Rs. 10 million, a house in Mayurbhanj – Orissa, and owned illegal arms. Two months later it turns out that his LIC policy has shrunk to anemic INR 77 thousand, land he owns is measly 4 bighas, and the state CID is still hunting for the house in Mayurbhanj.

This is the credibility of the highest ranking police official in the state. Another case is of the detention under patently trumpeted charges of Dr. Binayak Sen that continued even under Chidambaram’s reign for at least 6 months when he was deaf to the entreaties for releasing him on bail by several eminent persons. He needed bail on health grounds. But a Pune based builder, Avinash Bhosale, who was arrested for bringing in very expensive items in his personal baggage without paying duty by Mumbai Customs, obtained bail from a night magistrate at lightning speed without spending even minutes in jail. Or Manu Sharma, son of powerful Congress leader Venod Sharma, who is in jail for murdering model Jessica Lal in a bar, got bail for family reasons only to land in another brawl at another bar this week. This shame of Manu’s parole happens in Delhi within few kilometers from Chidambaram.

Chidambaram : “It underscores my point that organs of government in this country are not functioning. There’s too much stasis, too much incompetence. The theoretical construct is not wrong, the practice is.”

One can only agree with him here by adding : There is too much graft, too much patronage, too much legislation, …….. and too little action to correct all this. There is a wide disconnect between words & action. If the practice is wrong, then it should be changed. If the organs of state are not functioning as they should, then that must be changed – in a hurry, in an Operation State Clean Up.

A tribal lives a meager economic existence. She can’t live by highfalutin theoretical constructs. She needs, work, She needs food – education – health services – shelter, above all she needs peace & safety. She needs these now. That is where Chidambaram, who is part of the executive that touches the life of citizens pervasively, pleads helplessness. It sets alarm bells ringing. The very same organs of state seem to be working right now like a well oiled machine in Orissa , Karnataka, West Bengal, etc. apart from Chhattisgarh. It may not be Operation Green Hunt that is denied by Chidambaram, but it could very well be ‘Operation Tribal Hunt’ as described by Bhai Vaidya – a veteran socialist leader in Pune or a photo journalist from central India Javed Iqbal.

This article was posted in CGNet