Terror and civil liberties

Terror and civil liberties
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First Published: Sun, Jan 06 2008. 11 20 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Jan 06 2008. 11 20 PM IST
With heightened concerns about security and terrorism, there has been an active debate about how to combat them. Faced with insurgency in the North-East, militant Maoists in several states, and blasts in public places, state governments have been rethinking the security paradigm and redefining the roles of different agencies and institutions. Several states have passed anti-terrorist laws that provide for preventive custody. The Chief Justice of India has warned the country about the dangers of lawmakers in several states introducing such legislation and using it in a high-handed manner. There have been instances where these laws have been used against those who have opposed industrialization programmes of a state by highlighting the interests of the poor.
There have also been instances of arrests on flimsy grounds of “waging war against the state.” The approach of picking up people for questioning, and holding them without framing charges and bringing cases for trial, is a major violation of human rights. Media and intellectuals have been highlighting these issues. Yet, the jails are full of inmates who have spent years there without being charged. With increasing security concerns, the public is merely told that a suspect has been picked up. Little is heard of the trial or conviction. That such laws are used to settle political scores, and that they invariably work against the interests of the poor, has been established again and again in specific instances.
Barely 6% of the cases on trial end in conviction, and the legal process is fraught with delays and loopholes. The state prosecutors are often no match for the strategies of defence lawyers. Contacts and patronage ensure that the richer you are, the less you need to worry about the law. In short, the public is clearly alienated from the State in the maintenance of law and order and views state agencies as an enemy and not as an ally. There is considerable evidence that this has led to the rise of local strongmen who administer peace in their domains. The larger manifestation is the Maoists—for where they operate, they are the law and not the State.
State agencies, on the other hand, plead institutional helplessness. The law breakers are often better armed and trained; they have political access and support, and the legal system causes innumerable hurdles to speedy conclusion of trials. Most importantly, the law enforcement agencies no longer command the respect and affection of the people and, therefore, are no longer privy to information or intelligence, and are hence unable to come to grips with crime or terrorism. The only way they can enforce obedience is through State terror—picking up suspects, holding them under draconian laws, lumping the innocent and the guilty together, and ensuring that things do not get out of hand. Little do they realize that this alienates the public even further.
Why have we come to this? About 30 years ago, as collector in a crime- prone district, I used to get information about every crime committed the same day and the name of the perpetrator within 48 hours. It was not an intelligence system that was operating —just a fair administrative system that ensured grievances were listened to, and that in return, the villages cooperated and felt that they were part of the State.
In one major incident where scores died in an inter-faction rivalry, I heard of it just before the incident and rushed to the spot, but reached too late to prevent it. Both sides assured me later that honour required that carnage, and that I could not have prevented it, and they were willing and ready to face the law and the consequences. The lesson was that the State was their friend and ally.
The speedy detection of the perpetrators of the London bombings and subsequent terrorist incidents was in no small measure due to the support and cooperation that the police got from the public. The State reciprocated by bringing the guilty to trial quickly. There were no attempts to delay justice. A crime against the State was a crime against every citizen, and all helped in bringing the guilty to book.
We have to compare the record of detection of the half-dozen terrorist- organized explosions here in the last two years. There has been little information forthcoming to the police.
The State and its institutions are in decay, notwithstanding the high Sensex and the mighty conclaves of the government and the rich. And it is in decay because the institutions that deal with the public have become exploitative and whimsical—seeking to deal with dissidence with a heavy hand, and meting out unfair laws to a mute populace. In several states, there is an uneasy calm—the disaffection is manifest at elections. Having dealt intimately with rural populations for more than 15 years of my career, I am not sure how long the tolerance of state-sponsored high-handedness will last.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the prime minister. We welcome your comments at policytrack@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jan 06 2008. 11 20 PM IST