The spectacle of sections of the police force burning effigies of political and social activists in Chhattisgarh on Monday holds dangerous portents. Across towns in the state, auxiliary constables, many in uniform, informed the media about their protest and later shouted slogans and burnt effigies of politicians Manish Kunjam and Soni Sori and activists, Nandini Sundar, Bela Bhatia and Himanshu Kumar. Their complaint: That by highlighting human rights abuses by security forces in the region, these individuals were speaking on behalf of the Maoists. The trigger for this protest seems to be a CBI status report filed before a special court last week, where security forces have been blamed for burning down 160 houses of Adivasis in Tadmetla village. The state police had claimed that the 2011 incident was the handiwork of Maoists.
Security forces, especially at the lower rung like the auxiliary constables, have a tough fight on hand in Chhattisgarh. The Maoists are well-armed, battle-hardened and have the ideological and organisational sanction to kill their critics and opponents. Yet, in a constitutional democracy governed by the rule of law, the security forces do not have the option of countering the Maoists by imitating them. The legitimacy of the Indian state derives from its claim to function within the ambit of a liberal democracy that respects civil liberties including the right to debate and dissent. Indeed, the political and civil societies are expected to speak up on behalf of citizens and raise uncomfortable questions in the event of transgressions by the state. Leaders like Kunjam, a senior CPI leader and a former MLA from the region, and activist-academicians like Sundar and Bhatia, have been outspoken about the state’s failures in the region, including its strategy to enlist vigilante groups to fight the Maoists. They have articulated their views on the appropriate platforms and have sought remedies from institutions like the judiciary. The state, including its security apparatus, must learn to cope with the criticism that emerges from the civil and political society and to address it in the appropriate ways and forums.
Vigilantism has been on the rise in Chhattisgarh and sections of the civil society, including the media, have been its victims. Government inaction in the face of such activities could lead to a breakdown of the rule of law and in the long run undermine the writ of the state itself. That can have devastating consequences for a people who have been exposed to brutal violence by state and non-state actors for years.