‘Halt the Violence! Just Give Me 72 Hours’

With a rare candour, in an unprecedented interview, P Chidambaram maps the ways in which he is willing to engage with all aspects of the Naxal problem

November 21, 2009 in Politics
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Photos: Shailendra Pandey

At the core of the Maoist crisis lie some of the thorniest questions that confront Indian democracy. It poses a mirror to our selves and asks, is there really any intention to deliver? Are elctions merely a smokescreen to preserve the status quo? But brute violence has an uncomfortable way of usurping a show. Recently, India has been convulsed by high-voltage drama as the Maoist ‘debate’ suddenly erupted centrestage. As news of Operation Green Hunt, a major central government offensive against the Maoists, gathered steam, activists began to raise alarmed flags about the “collateral damage” that would inevitably flow. The Maoists themselves retaliated with an even more brazen show of strength: kidnappings, beheaded cops, blasted police stations. In all the competitive and belligerent rhetoric that followed, the real topography of the argument was lost.

In a sense, the man at the heart of this sudden eruption was Home Minister P Chidambaram. Having taken over a comatose ministry from his predecessor Shivraj Patil, in the wake of the devastating 26/11 attack, over the last year Chidambaram has gone about joining many “missing dots” in the security apparatus, as one of the men in his ministry puts it. One of these joined dots was the decision to spearhead a coordinated strategy between the Centre and Naxal-affected states to “wipe out the Naxal menace”.

Unlike his predecessor, Chidambaram is not a man you can ignore. In his own words, he started out as a “flaming communist”, a man who, in his youth, hurled idealistic slogans against the capitalist might of the State, until he realized the trade union leaders he was revering were cutting deals on the side. “I’m done with that murky world,” he says in an incidental conversation. In a political career spanning 25 years then, he has moved from being a staunch socialist to being one of the chief architects of the new liberalized economy. Despite some key pro-people steps, including granting a Rs 70,000 crore farm loan waiver, (as well as his consistent defence of reservations as affirmative action), in both his stints as Finance Minister, Chidambaram has largely been perceived as a champion of corporates. His controversial briefs as a lawyer, especially for companies like Vedanta and Enron, have added to his ambiguous aura. A man firmly opposed to SEZs, yet firmly committed to mining. A man, who, even his worst detractors would grant, is highly intelligent and unafraid of taking action. For a society still in transition, inevitably then, for many people, Chidambaram has come to seem a distillate of many contemporary anxieties about power and big money. To find him at the centre of a “coordinated strategy” therefore seemed hugely reassuring to some, hugely dismaying to others.

About two weeks ago, however, Chidambaram replaced the threat of an “all out war” with an offer for peace talks. Abjure violence, he appealed to the Maoists, and the government was willing to discuss all the key issues: land acquisition, forest rights, industrialisation, and local forms of governance. In a line: how the State should relate to its people. As it stands, this offer is unimpeachably worded. What’s more, it lowers the temperature enough for one to examine what really is at stake.

Physical violence is the simplest part of the argument. Of course physical violence is heinous. Whether it’s Francis Induwar beheaded by the Maoists or the 19 tribals shot by the police in Singaram. Or the 14 in Nandigram. Or in Kalinganagar. What’s much more difficult to grapple with is the ideological violence that underpins all of this.

On the one hand, there is the deep, embedded “structural violence” of the Indian State. What this means is that though in an inspired move our founding fathers granted universal adult suffrage to every Indian citizen at the moment of Independence, the Indian State itself has remained intensely feudal and oppressive in many ways.

The history of Stalinist Russia and Maoist china is not a pretty sight. Nor are they visions of the utopian equal society anyone would want to live in

On the other hand, though the Maoists seem to champion the cause of the people and are indeed creating a crucial awareness amongst the poor about their rights, they are not interested in reform or resolution. Their political ideal is to overthrow Indian parliamentary democracy and replace it with a dictatorship of the people. Catalysed by armed struggle. Unfortunately, the history of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China is not a pretty sight. Nor are they visions of the utopian equal society anyone would want to live in. The Maoists’ rejection of Chidambaram’s plea to abjure violence as an “absurd and irrational demand” and a “betrayal of the people” is of a piece with this ideology.

In its coverage of the Naxal riddle, Tehelka has consistently tried to angle the spotlight at the dispossessed and be a watchdog against State excesses: that is part of its commitment to the Constitution and the idea of the Indian State. However, none of its positions are doctrinaire. Chidambaram’s invitation for talks is a huge opportunity: the Maoists’ initial rejection, a big disappointment. But there is a much more important interlocutor in this dialogue: the people of India.

In this unusual interview, Home Minister Chidambaram makes many important and hopeful statements. If the people of India can hold him and his government to some of it, it would be a tiny step in the direction all stakeholders claim they want.

Justice and the dream of an equal society is a slow, painful, dialogic process. To imagine anything else is hubris. We have an imperfect system, let’s protest against it, let’s fix it, let’s fight about it, says the Home Minister, but don’t throw the whole system out. And don’t kill over it. As a conversation starter, that seems an irreproachable place to begin.

“I am ready to review all the corporate MoUs”

Home Minister P Chidambaram tells Shoma Chaudhury everything he is willing to do to de-escalate violence

Class war? A cop killed by Maoists at Sankrail, Bengal

Class war? A cop killed by Maoists at Sankrail, Bengal
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

In the past few months there’s been an escalated rhetoric from the State about Operation Green Hunt and “an all-out war against Maoists”. Now, with your offer for talks, a lot of that rhetoric has been toned down. What lay behind this sudden escalation and this toning down? And what, according to you, is really the best way to dismantle Maoist violence?
Everybody, especially the media, loves a war. You find this in every country – in the US after 9 / 11, in India after 26 / 11. You must not underestimate the gravity of the situation. The CPI(Maoists) have virtually taken control of many districts in seven states and completely paralysed the civil administration. Despite this, there was no conscious effort on the part of the government of India to raise the level of the rhetoric. We went about it in the only manner that we have to address a problem, namely, consulting the states. We consulted the states in January, we consulted the states in August and, necessarily, we put out a statement on what the consensus was. The consensus was that there should be coordinated action to take on the CPI (Maoists), which I think is perfectly right. So the Central Government offered paramilitary forces, real-time intelligence inputs, training, technical equipment and technology to the states. Show me one statement on the part of the Central Government, or me specifically, where I have raised the rhetoric against the CPI(Maoists). So I don’t agree that the rhetoric was raised and then toned down. The toning down, in fact, is again a perception. When we were asked if we will talk to the Maoists, I said yes, if they abjure violence we will talk to the Maoists. That’s been our stand from day one. The Prime Minister has said this, I’ve said it.  So the so-called escalated rhetoric happened after the consultation with the chief ministers and the so-called lowering is after we said we’ll talk to the Maoists. Each event is simply how the media perceives it.

There’s been a key shift in phrase from asking Maoists to “lay down arms” to merely asking them to “abjure violence”.
I never asked the Maoists to lay down arms because I know they will not. It is against their ideology. I have merely asked them to abjure violence. Unfortunately, much of the media did not notice the difference.

Doctored Binayak Sen was jailed for two years for criticising the Salwa Judum

Doctored Binayak Sen was jailed for two years for criticising the Salwa Judum

Many government functionaries have spoken of Operation Green Hunt to the media, but both you and Home Secretary Gopal Pillai have recently made public statements that it is a media creation. Are we to take it that this Operation does not exist? And if so, what are we to expect in the months to come?
There is no Operation Green Hunt. Name me an officer who has said this and I will take action. I have not seen a single paper or a single document in the Ministry of Home Affairs that uses the phrase Operation Green Hunt. It’s a pure invention of the media. What you can expect in the months ahead is merely a more coordinated effort by the state police to reassert control over territory or tracts of land where regrettably the civil administration has lost control. And for that purpose we will assist them in whatever manner is possible, particularly by providing paramilitary forces and sharing of intelligence.

There have been some other disturbing statements recently. At your interaction in the Indian Express office, you said, if need be, you would call in the army or the Rashtriya Rifles. You have also been saying that civil society is abetting a “climate of terror” and must “choose”. Raising one’s voice against State violence, excess or failure is the legitimate duty of a citizen; by doing that it does not mean one is supporting Maoist violence. Why trap people in this fatal binary? Why must we choose between two evils? Why would you want to outlaw democratic voices and lump them with Maoists?
I don’t blame you for inaccurate quotations. That’s something I’ve learnt to live with. You have quoted three parts of my alleged statements. All three are wrong. Let’s take the first one. At Indian Express I was asked, will the army be called? 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. That commando unit is meant for anti-terrorist operations and will be used with utmost caution.

Ashes to ashes A tribal woman in Chhattisgarh stands by her burned hut

Ashes to ashes A tribal woman in Chhattisgarh stands by her burned hut

Second, you quoted me as saying that civil society has to choose. Show me where I have ever said that. In my statement I outlined the Maoists’ history of violence and spelled out their policy of seizing state control through armed struggle. Having done this 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. That’s a stark choice that you cannot duck. You are an Indian citizen living in India and you, I, and everyone has to make that choice. Now Kishenji, Kobad Gandhy and others like them have made that choice. They have the right to make a choice and they have. I have also made my choice. Imperfect as it is, I want a democratic republican form of government. I have taken an oath under the Constitution and I am obliged to defend this form of government that you, I and our forefathers, rightly or wrongly, chose and agreed to abide by. All I say is that all others too have to make that choice. This has got nothing to do with choosing between two kinds of violence. Therefore when you say that I told civil activists to make a choice, you must also provide the context — between what did I say make a choice.

‘There is no operation green hunt, not a single paper in the ministry mentions it. Name me an officer who has said there is, and I’ll take action’

Fair enough. Few would argue with targeted operations against Maoist leaders who, per se, do not believe in parliamentary democracy and want to overthrow it through armed struggle. As you say, we have made a choice about living in a democratic republic. But that cannot stop us arguing over its imperfect nature. When we point to state oppression or collateral damage or structural violence, as Home Minister can’t you engender a greater climate of justice? In so far as moral rhetoric drives action, can you not send out a message that violation by either the police or paramilitary will not be tolerated?
I entirely agree. We are an imperfect democracy; in fact our imperfections are growing every day. And we must debate, struggle and strive to keep perfecting this system. All I am saying is that no matter how frustrated we feel, no matter how slow the process is, let’s not throw out the system itself. I cannot make our democracy perfect overnight. There are other institutions which are required by the Constitution to see that the structures of governance work. There are the courts. There are the Human Rights Commission at centre and state level. There are commissions for minorities, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. There is the RTI and the information commissioners and election commissioners. There’s a CAG and an accountant general to ensure money is correctly spent. If many these institutions work reasonably well, we’d have a system that works. The frustrating thing is many of these institutions are either faltering or paralysed. This is why our imperfections are growing.

Hunter, hunted Tribals in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh

Hunter, hunted Tribals in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh

Still, within my authority and power, there are certainly some rules I can ensure. For example, since I took over this ministry, 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 am totally opposed to staged encounters. It’s possible that in a gun battle between the police and those who take to the gun, people could get killed, but that’s unfortunately a battle. But if you arrest a person, he must be produced before a magistrate. There’s no question of tolerating an encounter, and I can say with complete confidence that since December 1, 2008, no one who has been arrested by the police has died in an encounter.

Likewise, I can ensure that certain norms are observed. For example there’s talk of torture chambers. 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.

‘I can say with complete confidence that since I was appointed home minister, no one arrested by the police has died in an encounter’

In the same way, in our coordinated strategy against the Maoists, I have given instructions that there should be no firing unless we are fired at, there should only be intelligence-based operations, not broad sweeping cordon-and-search operations that could alienate local populations. I have been in Punjab, I understand the pitfalls. My point is every organ of government in this country — and I use government with a capital G — must discharge its responsibilities. If you had a strong district judge and a set of very strong, fearless magistrates, very little would go wrong in the criminal justice system.

The problem is things are going wrong. In Manipur apparently there have been 285 false encounters this year alone. Tehelka itself exposed one shocking one in July. In the offensive against Naxals too, civil activists like Himanshu Kumar have been trying to highlight the fact that Salwa Judum SPOs have been burning down tribal homes, stealing hens and goats, raping women. There is a complete breakdown of trust because tribals can’t even get their FIRs filed.  Civil rights groups are saying that for the peace talks to have any meaning, we have to restore people’s faith in the justice system. Can’t you send out a message to the administration that just because this is a conflict zone, excesses will not be tolerated? Arrest some of the SPOs against whom there are complaints…
I’m glad you think I have so much power and authority. Law and order is a state subject. All that you have spoken about in the last couple of minutes falls under the jurisdiction of the State governments, the Chief Minister and Home Minister of the state. You must take up cudgels with them. If I interfere too much they are likely to throw List II of the Constitution at me.

Citizenship Activist Himanshu Kumar’s ashram was razed by the State on May 17

Citizenship Activist Himanshu Kumar’s ashram was razed by the State on May 17

You are washing your hands of it.
No, I am saying raise your voice and take up cudgels with the relevant authority. Nevertheless, to answer your question, when I took over, one of the first issues that came up was the Salwa Judum and I made myself very clear, publicly as well as privately to the chief minister, I do not approve of non-state actors taking things into their own hands. That’s a function of the police. And to my knowledge, over time the activities of the Salwa Judum have virtually wound down.

‘When I took over, I made myself very clear, both publicly and privately to the chief minister, I do not approve of the Salwa Judum’

No, the SPOs are still armed. The Supreme Court has directed that the villages that were evacuated under the Salwa Judum must be rehabilitated but the SPOs are apparently interfering with this.
Quite possible, but the SPO is an agent of the state government. We have them in Jammu and Kashmir, we had them in Punjab. In a sense, they are employees of the state government, so the state must bear responsibility for what the SPO does. If the SPO exceeds his authority or indulges in gratuitous violence, he should be punished. But law and order is a state subject and when there are duly elected governments, 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.

Terrorists? Two of the women exchanged for a cop, kidnapped by Maoists in Lalgarh

Terrorists? Two of the women exchanged for a cop, kidnapped by Maoists in Lalgarh
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

To focus on your offer for peace talks. As it stands, your offer is unimpeachably worded. Crucially, you have offered to discuss all the key issues: land acquisition, mining, industrialization, forest rights, forms of local governance. But the Citizens’ Initiative for Peace feels that for the offer to have any meaning on the ground, you must make some gestures to restore people’s faith in the justice system. One of the things they suggest is, even if only as a confidence building measure, why don’t you hold a jan sunwayi or people’s hearing in Naxal affected areas?
If any civil rights group or tribal representative will organise it, I am ready to come.

Is that on record? Activists like Himanshu Kumar say you don’t even need to speak to the Maoists, just start speaking to the people directly — that will wean them away and restore their faith in the Indian State. In these places it’s not just that poverty alleviation has been absent, but that the State has only shown its most oppressive or malign face.
A group that owes allegiance to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar came to see me. Even though I may not adhere to their politics, I told them if you want to work in these areas and convince tribals to invest faith in the State and eschew support to violence, I will extend all the support I can give, I will ask the states to support and, if necessary, I will come myself to speak to them. But I have not heard from them since.

‘I’ve said there should be no firing unless we’re fired at. No broad cordon-and-search operations. I’ve been inPunjab; i understand the pitfalls’

In another context, you’ve mentioned that because there’s President’s Rule in Jharkhand, you’ve been able to achieve a lot, even though it’s a Naxal-affected region. So if you had a free hand in Chhattisgarh and Orissa and Bengal, or if there were Congress governments in these states, what are some of the remedial measures you would take?
While we can argue about this, I’m very clear in my mind, the first step is to ensure that there is no violence in an area. In a climate of violence, no one will listen to anyone else, no one will trust anyone else and nothing can be done. Maybe it’s out of context to say this, but this is a land where Gandhiji was born and he said violence has no place in civil society. I’m not a saint like him, but I firmly believe there’s no place for violence in our democracy. Therefore everyone — including the Indian State — must abjure violence. Then we must agree that the civil administration, however imperfect it may be, will be given the space and the time to do certain things. This is what we got in Jharkhand. Once we got the space and the time to do certain things, in just two and a half months, we achieved a lot. If you don’t believe me, just go back to the very same people who were complaining and ask them. A year ago, they were saying that the State has failed. Today you have a functioning PDS in the hands of women’s groups, old age pension is being paid, free rations are being distributed to everyone below the poverty line, schools have opened, teachers have been appointed. Just the day before polls were announced, I ensured that over a 1,000 doctors and paramedics were appointed, boys and girls in the tenth standard were given cycles, thousands of petty cases for violation of forest rights were cast out. 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.

Kandahar swap: This 70-year-old widow was one of the 14 women dubbed a Naxal terrorist

Kandahar swap: This 70-year-old widow was one of the 14 women dubbed a Naxal terrorist
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

That’s exactly the point many concerned citizens are making. You have not had a big military operation in Jharkhand. You did not need it. You just took the initiative to reactivate civil administration on the ground. The Maoists have not had the temerity to harm that because they know if they attack anything that is bringing genuine well-being to the people, local populations will get alienated. Why not take the same initiative in Chhattisgarh or elsewhere?
This is not to say Maoists have been not been violent in Jharkhand. They have been particularly violent in instances like the Francis Induwar case. And now they have called for a boycott of the elections and put out a statement saying they will “target” and “punish” Congress and JMM in particular. The point here is, instead of arguing over who is responsible for the violence or who should stop the violence, why don’t the CPI Maoists heed my appeal and say, “yes, we will halt the violence and let us hear the Home Minister’s response”. Give me two or three days to respond, because I need to consult others in government and state governments. I am not a dictator, I have to consult everyone. Once they say, halt the violence and they actually halt the violence, between their statement and my response which will surely come in about 72 hours, if there is actually no violence, you will find that I am in a position to respond in a manner that violence can be ended once and for all and development can take place, and talks can also be held with the CPI Maoists. But the first step is to say, “we halt the violence”.

Stockholm syndrome Atindranath Dutta being released by Maoists

Stockholm syndrome Atindranath Dutta being released by Maoists
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

That’s a big statement. No one at any end of the spectrum can argue with that position. To get back to your offer for talks: You have offered discussion on all the key issues: land acquisition, forest rights, industrialisation, local governance. While this is an important gesture, why hand over the “rights discourse” to the Maoists? Why don’t youspell out better more equitable ways of doing all of this? Especially mining. There is a real misgiving that much of the military offensive planned in these areas is to take control over mineral-rich land. Companies like Tatas and Essar have signed MOUs with the state. Do you believe these MOUs directed the Salwa Judum or the urgency with which the state now wants to regain control of this land?
I think you are looking for a sinister design that does not exist. I think these MOUs have been signed over a period of time with different governments, long before Maoist violence escalated to this level. Be that as it may, I am prepared to request the Prime Minister to freeze all these MOUs and order a comprehensive review of all the MOUs that have been signed in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and South Bihar, and then decide which MOU should be implemented, with or without modification. I am prepared to request the PM to do that.

‘Do you want the Tribals to remain hunters and gatherers? Are we trying to preserve them in some sort of anthropological museum?’

That is on record.
Yes, it is. But I don’t think that is the main issue. It may be the issue foregrounded but the real issue is – and this is something that I am at pains to draw everyone’s attention to – the real issue is that the Maoists are not merely champions of the people, defending their rights and challenging the Indian State to function better. Their real thesis is that the parliament system is a rotten system. They believe, and I quote, that “Parliament is a pigsty” and therefore an armed liberation movement is the only way to destroy the Parliament and establish the dictatorship of the people. Now, that’s an intrinsic ideological position. Who can argue with them and tell them they are wrong? If someone holds that position I can’t do anything about it but

(Overlapping) I want to sideline the focus on the Maoists and focus on the Indian State — 
— but even if they hold that position and don’t indulge in violence and are willing to talk to the government on issues that concern them, I’m still okay with that. I will persuade the state governments and I’ll facilitate talks on forest rights, industrialization, land acquisition and development. But so far, the Maoists response to my offer for talks has been to say that asking them to abjure violence is irrational, absurd and tantamount to betraying the people they defend! Just two days ago, they killed four policemen in Bengal. They weren’t even part of a search patrol. Who gave the Maoists the right to be judge, jurist and executioner?

Faceless Makdam Muke’s husband and two other women were shot in front of her

Faceless Makdam Muke’s husband and two other women were shot in front of her
Photo: Vijay Pandey

I’m back to my question. Why leave it to the Maoists to describe an equitable and pro-people way of doing things? Mining practices is one of the biggest faultlines in our country today. What are your thoughts on the matter? You are someone who believes mining is intrinsic to development.
Yes, I do. In my mind, I am completely convinced that no country can develop unless it uses its natural and human resources. Mineral wealth is wealth that must be harvested and used for the people. And why not? Do you want the tribals to remain hunters and gatherers? Are we trying to preserve them in some sort of anthropological museum? Yes, we can allow the minerals to remain in the ground for another 10,000 years, but will that bring development to these people? We can respect the fact that they worship the Niyamgirhi hill, but will that put shoes on their feet or their children in school? Will that solve the fact that they are severely malnutritioned and have no access to health care? The debate about mining has gone on for centuries. It is nothing new.

History has very few examples to show that local communities have benefited from mining. 
I can point to a dozen examples where the harvesting of mineral wealth has brought about development for the people who lived there. Neyveli in Tamil Nadu is one example. Ask the vaniyars — who by the way are the poorest of the poor — if Kamraj and the lignite mining there has improved their life or not. Jamshedpur is another example.

There are double the number of bad examples. Jamshedpur is a turn-of- the-century example. Since then, a lot has changed. Today, private companies, both Indian and international, are literally bleeding the land for private gain. 
Yes, there are bad examples. These are issues that have to be discussed and we have to find a model where mineral wealth can be exploited without detriment to the environment and without affecting the livelihood of the people. We think – and let me say this with a certain amount of caution – we think we have a good land acquisition and rehabilitation policy. Now private companies have to access 70 percent of land directly and only then can the State intervene to take over the remaining 30 percent. If that requires improvement, we can again talk about it. (In fact, Mamata Banerji has already raised flags. She says the State should not acquire land for private companies under any circumstances. We are discussing that.) We also think we have a good compensation policy that assures jobs, houses, and resettlement. But if that requires improvement, we can talk about it. I think the Prime Minister has made it very clear that he is open to any suggestions to improve the system.

Let’s go back to where we started. We have an imperfect system; imperfect systems throw up imperfect solutions. So we can talk about how to make both the system and the solution more perfect. But surely we don’t need to kill each other because of this!

I am again stating this, I don’t know the content of these MOUs but I have no hesitation in saying if somebody wants these MOUs comprehensively reviewed, we can review them. All of you know that I have a critical view on SEZs. Many of these SEZs are falling by the wayside now thanks to the global recession. In a sense, I am happy. So if you want a comprehensive review of the SEZs that have been licensed, I am prepared for that too. But the starting point of that dialogue has to be that violence must stop. Otherwise that dialogue just gets derailed.

I agree with you and it’s very heartening to hear you say all this. But the Land Acquisition Act was only sent for amendment after the Nandigram resistance. Ditto for the SEZ Act. Ditto for the Rehabilitation Bill. Until these flashpoints are engendered by frustrated people, the State doesn’t spend time thinking these things through. This is why some people have begun to feel that until you pick up a gun or cut roads or protest violently, the Government of India is not willing to listen. As journalists, at a pinch, we can access ministers, the common man can’t. So why don’t legislators spend time thinking through the most fair laws in the first place?
Elect better legislators!

‘I’m convinced that no country can develop unless it uses its natural and human resources. Mineral wealth is wealth that must be harvested’

That’s a bad argument.
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?

The UPA has been entrusted with a second mandate. 
Yes, but the people have not trusted us with a complete majority, which is okay. They require us to work with others. When we work with others who are elected legislators, we have to accommodate their points of view. Take the Forest Dwellers’ Rights Bill. I know the long hours and agonising arguments the Prime Minister personally chaired with various stakeholders before that bill took shape. Despite that, it was again amended in the floor of the House to accommodate Brinda Karat’s concerns – who was then an ally. Now if you tell me that law is still imperfect, we have no choice but to debate it again. This is the way laws are made in our country; if the method is imperfect, the result will be somewhat imperfect. We can keep debating and improving upon the law, but to say we are callous or heartless or deaf to the pleas of civil society or affected people – I don’t think that is right.

Let’s return to mining. The Bellary Brothers, Madhu Koda, Jagan Reddy, Vedanta are just a few obvious examples of the corruption. Then there are problems with effluents, health hazards and pricing. We are also handing over national wealth to private companies who can mine and move on with no concern about national interest. Our mining is not need-based, it’s market based. Tribals are being evacuated from ancestral land without being made stakeholders in these projects. No CSR clauses are being worked into mining leases. Leave the Maoists aside, what do you think is the blueprint for more equitable and sustainable mining?
When you say “you”, I suppose you are meaning the Government, because the Government functions through ministries and ministers. The point is, every single concern you have mentioned is already accommodated under the present law. No one can mine unless a mining plan is approved by a competent authority. How much you can mine, how you’ll restore the land, how much you’ll be taxed, all these things are stipulated and worked out. 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. I am back to my basic point. See, the law is not as imperfect as you think it is. It’s the application and enforcement of the law which is. If someone points out that this company is violating a mining plan, there are other organs of government which must discharge their duties. Why are these organs silent? Why does everybody look up to a minister? These organs exist in the governance structure so that each one can exercise its authority independently and be a kind of check and balance. 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?

‘We can keep debating and improving laws, but to say we’re heartless or deaf to the pleas of civil society or affected people, is not right’

Unfortunately, we all know graft is driving everything in this country.
I agree. Graft is driving a lot, but to say everybody’s hand is in the till is wrong. 

Many activists feel concerned about the fact that you have represented many mining companies as a lawyer. In some cases, you have even argued against the State levying cess on them. There’s also discomfort that you were once both lawyer for, and non-executive director of, a company like Vedanta.
So what? I have also appeared as a lawyer for many teachers, doctors, government servants and civil rights causes. What’s wrong with that? There is utter confusion amongst liberals about this issue. As a lawyer, I am merely executing a professional brief. I might argue the exact opposite point of view for another client. It has nothing to do with my decisions as a minister. I think it is very wrong to casually ascribe motives. I may disagree with your point of view, but I would not ascribe a motive to you unless I am absolutely sure of your mala fide intent. I do not claim to be perfect, but I am trying to do my best. If this attitude continues, you will push the good people out of the system. Besides, as a matter of fact, I appeared in an excise law case for a sister company of Vedanta and I recuse myself whenever any Vedanta related matter comes up before the Cabinet.

Recently in Lalgarh, when the OC was kidnapped and the Maoists asked for the release of 14 tribal women, unfortunately they won a major PR battle. The media kept referring to this as a “Kandahar swap” and berating the west Bengal government for their “velvet glove” approach.  The truth is the “velvet hand” of the State should never have arrested these women in the first place. Far from being Naxal terrorists, these women were arrested from a panchayat office where they had gone to complain. There was a 70-year-old widow among them, and many of the others were so poor, their husbands had not been able to visit them in jail. The Lalgarh resistance began because the police randomly picked up dozens of people after the bomb attempt on Chief Minister Buddhadeb. How do you break this vicious cycle?  
As far as police picking up wrong people goes, I ask, why did the judge remand them? The judge then failed in his duty.

But this is the climate of conflict one is cautioning about, with regard to future coordinated police efforts against Maoists or, in another context, Muslim extremists. In this climate, the State has to be extra careful, because it’s easy to put away innocent people.
I don’t agree. The judge could have released them. 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. That is why when they released these 14 women I did not utter a word of criticism. I simply said that’s a decision the state government is competent to make. But please remember that while there are these 14 women on the one hand, there was another woman who led the attack on the police station and that group killed two police officers and abducted one. That was also a woman. Therefore I don’t think you can divide the world into men and women.

Fear, counterfear State forces search for mines in Lalgarh

Fear, counterfear State forces search for mines in Lalgarh
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

I agree it’s a grey zone, but —
The point is these women were obviously victims of circumstances, but I would fault the judge who remanded them to judicial custody. He should have released them on the same day when they were produced before him.

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.

‘I’ve proposed amendments to AFSPA which will make it more humane. I may stumble on the way, I may succeed, but I’m definitely trying to amend it’

A key problem about conflict zones are draconian laws like AFSPA, MCOCA, the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act. The reason why someone like Binayak Sen could be arrested and kept in jail for two years is that even courts get influenced by the climate of conflict. In the tightrope between security and justice, these laws allow the police or forces to become lazy. Instead of being patient and doing rigorous investigative work that will put away actual perpetrators, they just catch anybody they like. The State is not enjoined to be careful. Such laws increase the cycle of hatred and violence. Manipur is a great example of this.
I agree. We have some tough laws but none more tough than what was passed by the British Parliament last year, or by the US after 9/11. There, confession before a police officer is admissible. Since I took over, I have made it clear that a confession before a police officer will not be admissible. Tough laws are required under certain circumstances but we have also made it clear that we are willing to repeal these laws once the crisis passes. We repealed TADA, we repealed POTA. On AFSPA – the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee recommended repealing it. If they had stopped there, I would have been happy. But they suggested making another law or amending the existing one to virtually incorporate the offending provisions. Anyway, having read that report carefully, I have proposed amendments to AFSPA which will make it a more humane law, and yet serve the purpose when the army is deployed. The army refuses to be deployed in a civil conflict situation unless it has certain protections. There are only two ways to go about the: One, we can say the army will not be deployed: the matter ends there. The other is to say, the army will be deployed if necessary, but we will give them adequate protection, not excessive protection. You have to strike a balance and make a judgement. Right or wrong, it will always be criticized.  I have made a judgement and proposed amendments. But can I simply wield a magic wand and bring them into force? No. I have to clear it through Cabinet and Parliament. I may stumble on the way, I may succeed in my effort but at least I am trying to amend AFSPA. I have told everybody in Kashmir and Manipur the amendments are ready, it’s before the Cabinet. Now we have to wait and see what we can deliver.

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