In a speech to Congress nine days after 9/11,US President George W. Bush declared war on terror. It seemed as innocuous a phrase then,as it is commonplace now. But re-categorising a law enforcement problem as war was a game-changer in two ways. First,war demands that we rally around the leader; questioning abuse of power can be unpatriotic. Second,since war is ugly business,mistakes happen. Some collateral damage is inevitable. Bushs audience and Americas other public institutions agreed to play by these new rules. His war on terror ranged from controversial (the Patriot act,racial profiling) to plain illegal (warrantless wiretapping,Guantanamo bay,Iraq). In every single case,the Bush administration got a free pass from the Congress,Senate,media,judiciary and public opinion. To take just a few examples: the Supreme Court refused to grant habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo bay detainees in flagrant breach of international law waking up somewhat only seven years later. While the rest of world cried foul,the Congress and Senate gave bipartisan support to the Iraq war. And the public? Bushs approval rating post 9/11 shot to 90 per cent even before hed taken a single major decision!
This free pass that public institutions give the executive is characteristic of war everywhere. Israeli public opinion accepts a thousand Palestinian deaths in Gaza as unavoidable collateral damage; its human rights community thinks it bad taste to chastise the army in times of trouble. As Sri Lanka stands on the brink of an epic victory,the media self-gags,courts are careful,and executive power is unquestioned. Some of this acquiescence is got by intimidation. Dissenting voices are burnt,bombed,sealed and coerced,Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickramatunga wrote in a tragically prescient obituary of himself. But for most part,this institutional group-think is done voluntarily,and with the best of intentions: solidarity in times of war,and sacrifice for the greater common good. In Americas case,war as metaphor to paraphrase Susan Sontag gave Dubya leeway wide enough to preside over what emerging consensus terms the very worst presidency ever. Does America post 9/11 explain Binayak Sen?
A practicing doctor in south Bastar,Binayak Sen was arrested by the Chhattisgarh police for supporting Naxalites. Hes been in jail-without-bail for 19 months. The magistracy,high court,Supreme Court and NHRC have all reinforced the states view on Sen. With so much smoke,surely he must have set something on fire? But as The Indian Express pointed out in a series of articles (IE,January 13,14,15) and in an editorial (IE,January 15),injustice on a colossal scale has likely been done. Known criminals arrested on harder evidence get bail quicker. And in the ongoing trial in Raipur,the governments case against Sen never strong has more or less collapsed. Yet,in jail for close to two years,Binayak Sen seems destined to spend a couple more.
One way is to see this as a monolithic state fixing its enemy and stifling institutional dissent. But the Supreme Court and NHRC went after Narendra Modi. The media,Supreme Court and public opinion all stood up to Indira Gandhi. India is no banana republic; its institutions no Pakistan. Why then have our public institutions failed Binayak Sen?
Described as Indias greatest internal security threat by the prime minister,Naxalites operate in half of Chhattisgarhs 18 districts. In response,the Raman Singh state government has re-categorised the threat from law and order to war. Anti-Naxal measures such as para-military deployment (17 battalions),nurturing an extra-legal militia (Salwa Judum),and targeting supporters of any kind (the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act) are weapons to wage war,not sticks to keep the peace. The least they require is tough questioning by activist public institutions. But the high court,Supreme Court and NHRC all seem reluctant to play spoiler in a long drawn war against a dangerous enemy. To them,Binayak Sen is a war casualty: an enemy combatant at worst,collateral damage at best. Sens incarceration is a political question whose answer is best left to the judgment of the state executive. It would be deemed unpatriotic to do otherwise.
Binayak Sen is only one of 192 charged under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act; the Act only one of a slew of Indian anti-terror laws; and Naxalism only one (though perhaps most dangerous) of Indias million mutinies. But Binayak Sen symbolises a larger point: tough times may need tough responses,but require tough monitoring as well. Just as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo battered Americas sense of self more than Osama Bin Laden ever thought conceivable,misusing laws destroys the very ideals for which we battle against Al Qaeda and Naxalites. Institutional acquiescence of the war on terror did America great disservice. Will we too tell ourselves a generation later: that when faced with a good fight,we fought it the wrong way. And lost.