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A democracy of battered souls

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  13 Dec 2015 12:00 AM GMT

D. N. Bezboruah

The very paradox of the title should cause a few eyebrows to be raised. My readers might wonder which ba republic masquerading as a democracy I am talking about. Could it be Haiti or one of the many newly spawned democracies of Africa that have become dictatorships even though they have parliaments and perform the periodic ritual of holding elections? No, the so-called democracy is right here in the State called Assam. One is deluded into believing that it is a democracy because the most important activity of the ruling party is rolling up its sleeves for elections every five years. True, the government also has a Legislative Assembly which is now having its winter session, but that is about the last of the appurtences of democracy that this government has. Where the government completely fails the acid test of democracy is in its total rejection of the people, their needs and aspirations and their right to peaceful protest that the Constitution of India has given them. The most significant indication that this State had once started out as a proper democracy is in the residual features of democracy.

Let us begin by taking a look at what the capital of Assam looks like when the Assembly is in session. The first thing that meets the eye are scores of large barricades rigged up with timber and/or bamboo with a triangular cross-section that are moved into place with a great deal of effort and a lot of manpower. These are designed to prevent people from going anywhere beyond the limits set by the barricades. And just in case someone is either brave or foolish enough to scale these barriers, there is a strong police force with batons waiting to give him the kind of thrashing that is bound to send him to hospital with a few broken bones. And the police force deployed on such occasions is clearly instructed not to worry about whether the agitators gathered there are blind or otherwise handicapped. But the significant aspect of such a means of providing protection to our ministers and lawmakers is that no one has to even attempt scaling any of the barricades. All that is needed for the brutality of the police to be unleashed on the agitators are a few slogans. Anyone who tries to push through a human wall of policeman when such barricades are not in place, can count on the most severe battering that anyone has ever seen. And if the thrashing with batons and lathis is not effective enough, agitators are dragged or frogmarched, dumped into windowless vans and driven to the nearest police lock-up. These are the people that our politicians depend on for their votes and to be returned to power again and again. And yet, these are also the people who are expendable creatures at all times of the year other than immediately prior to elections. I have done my bit of travelling abroad but have yet to come across any country where peaceful protesters or demonstrators are so brutally and ruthlessly assaulted by the government of the day. But that is the style of governce in Assam. And this is called democracy in the State. Obviously, the semantics of our politicians is so warped that democracy merely signifies people as representing no more than countable votes at the time of elections. At all other times, they are disposable commodities that can be beaten, battered, made to work without salaries for years and imprisoned for protesting against such blatant injustice. But that is not all that there is to it. They can also be killed in cold blood under the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and their dead bodies disposed of in any manner that the perpetrators of the crime deem proper. But about this a little later.

How totally lacking our politicians are in even elemental respect for the people who put them in power can be had from the response of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi when he was informed about the five patients of the Mahendra Mohan Choudhury Hospital of Guwahati who had lost their eyesight due to the incompetence of an ophthalmic surgeon (who had a similar miserable track-record of five blindings earlier at Goalpara). All that Tarun Gogoi had to say was that such things happen in Punjab and Harya as well! He was clearly switching over to his favourite logic of two wrongs making a right—even in the case of a terrible human tragedy wrought by unskilled hands that should never have been allowed to hold a surgical scalpel after the initial set of serial disasters. There is no word of commiseration or regret; just a comparison to Punjab and Harya—not to Maharashtra, Tamil du or Kartaka. There are inquiries instituted even for less minor loss of government property. All that seemed to have happened in the case of the five unfortute persons who lost their eyesight was that the surgeon concerned was suspended. There was no talk anywhere about the government compensating even in some idequate measure the grave losses sustained by the five victims of an incompetent surgeon. After all, what had happened had taken place in a government hospital.

On Thursday, there was a television clip in one of the local news channels of an elderly couple being dragged out of their shop by a youth who repeatedly slapped and assaulted both the old man and his wife. Since it is the duty of the local police to monitor television channels, it is reasoble to ask what the Tarun Gogoi government has done to apprehend and punish such a crimil youth who can make vulnerable senior citizens his soft targets. Has he received even the kind of punishment that a slogan-shouting but peaceful demonstrator gets after he is arrested and shoved into an overcrowded lock up? If not, the question is: why not? Of what worth is the recent assurance of the Chief Justice of India that every citizen in the country is safe as far as security is concerned? At the State level, does it not become the duty of the State administration to see that the assurance of the Chief Justice of India is honoured? And what do we say about a police force that has got into the habit of talking about “a people-friendly” force? Is the neglect of the incident relating to the old couple likely to make the force any friendlier to the people?

Filly, there is the issue of killings of citizens carried out by our security forces on the plea of dealing with ‘encounters’. Such killings have been facilitated through the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). It will be recalled that this reprehensible piece of legislation was first introduced by the British as the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordince in 1942 to counter the Quit India movement. As such, its genesis is not to be traced to laws ected for the citizens of a free country by the lawmakers of that country. It is the replication of a Draconian law ected by an imperial power to quell peaceful dissidents in one of its colonies. Ironically, the AFSPA justifies the suspension of the law in order to preserve the law. There have been many other such Draconian laws modelled on the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordince of 1942 such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, that was thoroughly exploited by the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Siddhatha Sankar Ray, to elimite more than 500 young people in that State involved with the xalite movement. Later on, he did not hesitate to use similar Draconian laws to elimite rebellious youths in Punjab when he was appointed Governor of the State. Most of these Draconian laws have led to the creation of euphemisms like “extra-judicial killings” that have almost legitimized fake encounters and such killings by the State. The AFSPA that is in force also in Assam has led to a large number of killings of innocent youths not connected to any militant or terrorist outfits on the pretext of having to tackle encounters. Many of these encounters never took place. However, since reports had to be made to the higher-ups, officers of the security forces often had to kill innocent people in order to make up the tally of “militants killed” or “terrorists killed” that they had made in their reports. As such, we have hundreds of fake encounters that have led to killings of young people who had nothing to do with militancy or terrorism. I cannot do better than to refer my readers to a very recent book by Kishalay Bhattacharjee titled Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters, 2015 (Harper Collins) which has well authenticated but gory details of such State killings. In the ultimate alysis, such staged encounters give us a very vivid picture of how expendable people are in a democracy that is called Assam. And yet the bizarre game of talking about “Raaijar podulit raaijar sarkaar” goes on ubashed regardless of how the State really treats its people in this democracy. The sad part of it is that a lot of people are even beginning to believe that this is how all democracies are bound to run. We need many more people to convince the people that this is not how civilized democracies function, and that there are many more democracies in the world where there is genuine respect for the people, since it is the people who are the true masters—or ought to be the true masters—in a democracy.

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