Dialogue July-September 2009, Volume 11 No.1
Another Demeaning Swindle
D. N. Bezboruah
Recently, yet another swindle involving the Assam Public Service Commission (APSC) swept over the State reminding people of what had happened to the same august institution at the turn of the century. But let us start with the latest misdemeanour that has called for intervention by the Gauhati High Court. As it is, the APSC generally takes a lot of time to declare examination results and to make appointments. The reasons are not far to seek. There have been widespread allegations about the way jobs are actually being sold to the highest bidders. And after all, it takes a lot of additional work to disqualify the deserving, bury the tracks and put the undeserving who have bought their jobs in place of the deserving ones. So it is not unnatural for the APSC to take three years to send out the appointment letters of those who had appeared for the APSC examinations in 2006. I can hear the usual objection to such allegations from some corner over there: Can you prove this? No, obviously I cannot. That is because nobody who is into corrupt practices is going to leave fingerprints all over the place. But the simple question is: who do you believe? Do you believe the APSC chairman or member whose personal assets get visibly greater from month to month, or do you believe the candidate who has borrowed money from all over the place to be able to scrounge up enough to pay for his job? Some candidates have even got their parents to sell ancestral land to be able to pay the money for their jobs. Others have lost everything by getting into the clutches of greedy and unscrupulous middlemen. And the deal is very unevenly balanced. If the candidate who paid money gets a job, everything is deemed to be square. But if does not get a job, the money he had paid to buy a job is returned to him only in driblets every month, so that the entire amount is returned only after a few years if the bribe-payer is at all lucky. Since the lowest jobs are known to go for Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000, one can well imagine the predicament of someone who had coughed up Rs 200,000 or Rs 300,000.
With all the scheming and machinations involved, it is hardly surprising that appointment letters of the 2006 APSC examinees were issued only recently this year. However, a section of the deserving candidates who had been left out of the list, appealed to the Gauhati High Court to stay the appointment of those appointed after the 2006 APSC examinations because of the blatant irregularities that had marked the examinations. After hearing their appeal the High Court issued orders that none of the 116 candidates selected on the basis of the July 22, 2006 should be allowed to join their duties.
An even more remarkable aspect of the entire APSC episode is that one of the members of the APSC, retired IAS officer Sashadhar Nath, has also approached the Gauhati High Court in protest against the irregularities and corrupt practices of the APSC. Apart from establishing that he was not quite as hungry as the other members of the APSC, Mr Nath’s positive action against corrupt practices proves that there must be a few upright and honest people still left in our public institutions. And regardless of what happens to Mr Nath’s appeal and regardless of whether he remains a member of the APSC after this appeal, what will be clearly established is that things are really amiss in an institution like the APSC where one rightly expects probity and integrity of the highest order.
However, this is not the first time that the APSC has acquired notoriety as a result of its corrupt practices. In 2000, the then chairman of the APSC Tara Pada Das was charged with rampant corruption. Income-tax raids on his house yielded wealth (especially hard cash and securities) totally disproportionate to his known sources of income. He was sacked, but he contested the State Assembly elections the next year and emerged victorious defeating the Congress candidate of the constituency. The man who had been merrily breaking all laws had become a lawmaker of the State! But that was not the end of the story. Having beaten the Congress candidate at the hustings, Tara Pada Das was able to offer his support to the ruling Congress and become an ‘associate member’ of the Congress. In fact, this turned out to be the best of both worlds. By becoming an associate member of the Congress, Das was able to frustrate all attempts at initiating penal action against him.
This is what happened in a State that takes pride in being in the forefront of all States in introducing the Right to Information Act. The Vigilance and Anti-corruption Directorate, after completing its investigation into malpractices and disproportionate assets against Das, approached the State government for its sanction to prosecute him. This was on March 10, 2005 – already far too late in the day for a government claiming to be “transparent and corruption-free”. Since then, nearly four-and-a-half years have gone by, but the file concerned has been doing the rounds of the various departments of the State government and has now been lying in the office of the Chief Minister for months. This is how a corrupt public servant and an enemy of the people has been given protection for almost a decade.
But this is not all. Far more important than the protection of corrupt and criminal elements who have subverted one of the foremost institutions of the State administration, we have the far more alarming situation of the State itself seeking to sabotage the hallowed institutions that have done yeoman service to the State administration ever since its existence. In 2001, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi constituted a one-man commission (under the provisions of the Commission of Inquiry Act) to conduct an inquiry into the corruption and irregularities in the Assam Public Service Commission with retired IAS officer and former Home Commissioner Tapan Lal Baruah as its chairman. Baruah submitted his report to the government on December 31, 2001 with two key suggestions supposed to be implemented by the government and 50 other suggestions (including measures for examination reforms) to be implemented by the APSC. The government rejected outright the two key suggestions, accepted a few minor cosmetic changes as suggested and passed on the 50 suggestions to the APSC. The APSC too has implemented only a few of the 50 changes so far.
But what about the report itself prepared at considerable cost of public money? According to standing rules, the report of any inquiry commission that is set up under the Commission of Inquiry Act has to be tabled in the Assembly within six months of its submission to the government. It has not been submitted yet – even after more than seven-and-a-half years of its submission to the government.
What could be the reasons for such an arbitrary, arrogant and unconstitutional stand of the State government to a routine report submitted by a commission? Perhaps the two key suggestions made to the government hold the answer to the question. Both key suggestions relate to the constitution of the APSC. The first is that the government should form a search committee headed by the Chief Secretary for drawing up a list of probable APSC members on the lines of the selection process for vice-chancellors of universities. The second key suggestion is that the search committee should submit its list to the Chief Minister who should then form another committee whose members should be the Chief Minister himself, the Leader of the Opposition and High Court judges to select APSC members from the panel submitted by the search committee. What could be wrong with these key suggestions except that they strive to ensure greater accountability and responsibility on the part of the two committees and that the suggestions virtually end all backdoor entries of unknown or undesirable elements who have created a vested interest for such worthies that runs counter to the interests of the people? But quite obviously, Mr T.L.Baruah’s two key suggestions are unwelcome because they strike at the very root of the existing vested interest. Mr Baruah suggests that 50 per cent of the existing corruption would automatically come down if clean people can be selected as APSC members and that the remaining 50 per cent can be tackled if the other 50 suggestions in the report are implemented. But what is happening now is that all the members of the APSC are picked according to the wishes of the Chief Minister. This is how everything is done to ensure that there is no democratic process in a democratic set-up.
Punjab had a far worse swindle on a far grander scale within its Public Service Commission on the heels of the murky T.P.Das episode here. But Punjab resorted to a thorough cleaning up as soon as the swindle became public. The chairman of the Public Service Commission was sent to jail and the revamping of the Commission was started right away. Perhaps there is an element of irony in all this. Corruption in a big way started in Punjab during the days of Pratap Singh Kairon, remember?
Assam’s displaced populations
Of all the states in India, perhaps Assam has the largest number of internally displaced people (IDP) living in relief camps in different parts of the state. These IDPs have been uprooted from their hearths and homes on account of ethnic conflicts and violence that have visited Assam with regular frequency. Ironically the Government of Assam has no policy for tackling this major issue. The response has always been knee-jerk and a case of ‘too little too late.’ It is a matter of grave concern that while India has a policy on dealing with refugees from Sri Lanka or the Tibetans etc, it has no blue print for dealing with ‘people who are refugees in their own homeland.’ It is, of course, no coincidence that the displaced people in Assam are largely tribal groups belonging to the ‘tea tribes’ a nomenclature for the different racial groups comprising the Santhals, Mundas, Oraon, etc.
Government statistics show that in the Bodo-Santhal clash of 1996, the number of families displaced were 42,214 which adds up to 2,02,684 persons. The majority are Santhals. In the 1998 clash, 48, 556 families were displaced, adding up to a population of 3, 14,342. Hence within a span of two years nearly 5.5 lakh people were living in camps at some point and about 44,000 of them were children. While a good number have returned to their original homesteads there are still about 23,000 families termed as encroachers who have not been able to resettle in their original habitats. Children have grown up in the most abysmal conditions and women have often been seen to venture out of the camps to earn something through prostitution. Food and other amenities are grossly inadequate.
But the above two are not the only ethnic clashes that Assam has experienced. The horrific Nellie massacre of 1983 still haunts. Moreover, the Bodo-Santhal conflict resurfaced in 2004 leaving 37,000 people displaced. In 2005 the Karbi-Dimasa riot in Karbi Anglong district rendered 49,000 people homeless while the Karbi-Kuki conflict displaced 11,000 people. Then in the Bodo-Muslim clash of October 2008 in Darrang district, 14,279 people were displaced from their hearths and homes. The ongoing ethnic clash between the Zeme Nagas and the Dimasa tribes, which started in February 2009, has claimed several hundred lives and razed an equal number of homes to the ground. Altogether 44,000 people are displaced in this most recent flare up. Independent researchers put a rough estimate of about 1.5 lakh people living in different relief camps in Assam. This would easily make Assam the state with the highest number of people in relief camps, living in the most sub-human conditions.
And now, to salvage the situation in North Cachar Hills, the government proposes to relocate 10,000 villagers from 40 villages in 12 safe clusters with six clusters for each tribe. This is the second time that the state is trying out a regrouping plan in the North East. It happened in 1967 in Mizoram for the first time when the state uprooted thousands of villagers and relocated them. The Mizos attribute the present state of corruption in Mizoram to this thoughtless relocation plan, which they claim has made the industrious Mizo people indolent and dependent on relief without working for a livelihood.
In the relief camps for Tamil refugees in Tamilnadu, the Indian Government provides resources for setting up schools, so much so there is cent per cent literacy among the inmates. There are vocational courses for livelihood skills training for women and men. Mr Samuel Chandrahasan who has spent almost three decades serving the cause of Tamil refugees says, “We are grateful to the magnanimity shown by the Indian Government and the State of Tamilnadu. Now with trained human resource we can go back to rebuild Sri Lanka.” What makes it so difficult for the same Indian Government to think of its own displaced people? Is this because India is not aware of the problem of IDPs in Assam? Is it because this issue has never found mention in Parliament?
So far only the Lutheran World Service, a para-church organization, which has also roped in other relief organizations from across the world has done some solid work among the displaced people. They have meticulously studied the needs of this population through participatory rapid appraisals and narrowed down to a few basic necessities such as constructing temporary schools, and providing supplementary nutrition to students, training teachers and paying them honorarium. Above all they have in collaboration with the villagers used the food for work model to build about 25-30 km of roads reaching about 20 villages. Since the standing crops and stored seeds were destroyed the LWS provided seeds and fertilizers to families who returned to their homesteads after the conflict. Drinking water projects were implemented to ensure that people in camps do not contact water borne diseases.
Coming to the rehabilitation plans of the Government, the faultlines are gaping. Those displaced from revenue villages received Rs 10,000 as rehabilitation grants. Others living in recognized areas and encroached forest lands received nothing. Ironically, those displaced in the Karbi-Dimasa and Karbi-Kuki clashes got a meager Rs 1500 only as rehabilitation grant. Is there any justice in this rehabilitation package?
Identity politics is a dangerous weapon of mass destruction in the North East. Instead of narrowing differences it is creating bigger chasms that are difficult to bridge. Each dominant group uses identity as a springboard to electoral politics without a holistic approach to address the needs of the communities they claim to represent. Naturally this waters down their arguments that they are victims of ‘Asomiya’ prejudice.
The North East dilemma is that every dominant group asserts its own brand of chauvinism. While we all accuse India of being a menagerie of unequal citizens, where race, place of birth and caste are prominent markers, the dominant communities of the North East do the same within their areas of influence. Dispur, for instance would have shown more sensitivity and responded with greater alacrity if the displaced people were ‘Asomiyas’ and one does not need to split hairs about what that means. Similarly, the Bodos who are responsible for the displacement of Santhals from large parts of Kokrajhar and Gossaigaon are apathetic about the fates of those in relief camps. In the same manner the Khasis and Jaintias of Meghalaya find it hard to co-exist with the Garos. Identity then is a major marker here.
Today the ‘Asomiyas’ are in combative mode on account of the silent influx from Bangladesh. They realize their safe little cosmos is no longer that safe. Some are beginning to believe in a concerted, inclusive effort to fight the illegal influx. But it seems like a tall order to bring people together on a common platform. The element of distrust is too strong among the different communities of Assam.
But coming back to the problem of IDPs it is time for human rights groups to take this issue seriously. How can people live in camps for a whole generation? What are the psychological and mental scars that they carry with them? How can they be physically rehabilitated, trained and counseled to live normal lives once again? Depending on relief agencies and international organizations to do what is essentially a state responsibility suggests a major flaw in thinking. Besides, there is such a thing as ‘compassion fatigue.’
Can we stop talking about violence for now and concentrate on the victims of violence and what needs to be done for them?
Manipur’s Macabre Drama
The July 23 carnage at the crowded Khwairamband Bazar adjacent to the BT Flyover, in which Manipur police commandos committed daylight murder, eliminating an unarmed ex-militant in full public view and killing another pregnant woman bystander, is an ugly but expected flashpoint of a macabre drama unfolding in the state for the past many months. This drama is marked not so much by the unending daily routine of violence in which someone or the other is shot, be it by the government forces or else by the insurgents. On the contrary, what was even more sinister and pushing events to the tragedy was the unchecked arrogance and disregard for public safety of those who wield the gun.
In the case of the non-state forces, of which there are dime-a-dozen today, the case is one of utter lawlessness and disrespect of any universal standard of human dignity. Intimidation, humiliating physical punishments, bomb threats, kidnapping for ransom, summary executions have become rules rather than exceptions. There are understandably those who refrain from these activities but just one bad apple can spoil the whole basket. It would not be wrong at all today to say that the public in general are thoroughly terrorised and petrified by even their own shadows.
Even the media has had to shut down so many times, including on July 17 on account of this terror. Why isn’t it admitted by those concerned that insurgency in this land is short-circuiting somewhere? If nothing is done, things may get beyond salvage and insurgency reduced to just a matter of a bad law and order problem. Even those who want this to happen should remind themselves this can bring no lasting solution to the problem. On the other hand, it can only take it to another dimension.
If this is the picture on the one side, the other side is no better, if not worse. The contempt for the law and human rights with which state forces, in particular police commandos conduct their business is nothing less than frightening. It is an open secret today that “fake encounters” are a government sanctioned weapon used with terrifying impunity by the forces. In this sense, what the chief minister, Okram Ibobi was quoted as saying in the Assembly by a newspaper on the day of the Khwairamband carnage – that there was little other option left than extermination of the law breakers, was a Freudian slip made in the midst of an emotional outburst.
The emotional outburst was unbecoming of a leader of his stature, but what is evident is that it is because of such nods from the government that the arrogant sense of impunity and unwarranted lack of fire discipline amongst the state forces have been on a dangerous ascendency.
Even before national newsweekly Tehelka came out with what are indeed photographs demonstrating the crime was another “fake encounter”, evidences were already piling up that the wanton firings on July 23 were done by police commandos and no one else. The public hunch was reinforced by the image of a trigger happy band of executioners that they have cultivated for themselves.
It should also be obvious to those of us who have been following the accounts of the July 23 carnage, that there is a fairly simple point this inquiry can begin. The police claimed a 9mm pistol was the weapon used by the supposed insurgent they killed on the day. If this is the case, all those who received bullet injuries including the pregnant woman, Thokchom ongbi Rabina, who was killed should have been hit by 9mm projectiles only. Those of us who have been in this war zone long enough know it very well that even if the injuries were all caused by 9mm bullets this cannot be any conclusive proof, although a good beginning. For 9mm calibre weapons are common and used by both insurgents as well as government forces.
In fact, many of us would also know it is not only pistols which are of this calibre, but also some automatic rifles. However the case would be closer to a conclusion if some or all of the injuries are found to be caused by bullets of calibres other than 9mm, such as the smaller calibre AK or INSAS series rifle. The supposed insurgent assailant on the day did not have these weapons but the government forces surely would be.
From Killings to Murders
But the bombshell such as the one Tehelka, the national newsweekly from New Delhi dropped in its current issue which hit the stands and the world wide web last week, has been waiting to happen for a long time. Everybody knew the government was on a concerted unholy campaign of fake encounters as part of a new and brutal counter insurgency strategy. Its goal, as is obvious to any onlooker, is to exterminate the insurgents and their over ground network of activists totally.
To execute this plan, the government obviously needed cold-blooded killers with absolutely no conscience, and it is today grooming up such a killing machine quite successfully as everybody in Manipur would vouch. Even if chief minister Ibobi and his government considers insurgency as a war and insurgents as enemy combatants, and hence are able to find some justification in countering violence with violence and death with death, under such a policy, the “killings” were bound to degenerate into “murders”. Even before the Tehelka bombshell, there would have been no dispute this was the course the government campaign was taking. Tehelka in this sense has only put the sorry development on record firmly.
As expected there was an outburst of emotions following the expose. However, let this not be taken as partisan to anybody or organisation or ideology, as many on both sides of the warring fence surely would probably try to read. This is just the anguished but ideologically neutral scream of a brutalised and terrorised people. It is nothing more than the Tehelka story touching a raw and extremely sensitive nerve in them. As to who contributed to the making and exposure of this raw nerve is a longer story, and it is not necessarily a story to do with government alone. This sensitive nerve is the accumulated residue of all the atrocities the people have had to suffer from in all these years – brutalities of the security establishment, bomb threats by miscreants, extortions, summary executions, deprivations caused by corruption etc.
In fact, the increasingly complicated nature of this conflict has veritably resulted in a confusion in the minds of the people as to who are the victims and who are the perpetrators. The government as well as the parallel governments can and have both been the oppressors as much as either claimed to be the liberators.
This dilemma incidentally has also probably been the reason why the people by and large have not been committed enough to put up a collective resistance against these atrocities. They no longer know who or what to resist. If the uprising in the land were not there, what level of the inhumanity of corruption and indignity the people would be put through by a rudderless and unscrupulous government, and if the government were to step back and leave the state’s affair to the proliferating numbers of insurgent groups, what mindless chaos would the people have to tolerate? Both alternatives have ceased to be credible.
As for the chief minister and his government, there can be no excuse for the unfortunate chapter in the history of the state he is allowing to unfold. He cannot endorse a campaign of relentless and unchecked murders by government forces under any circumstance as he seems to be openly doing now, much less announce this policy intent on the floor of the Assembly. A government must have to be tough and strong-willed especially in the face of crises, but this does not mean it can encourage and groom its forces to be blood-thirsty, or worse still issue unconditional license to kill at will to these forces.
Probe Parameters Fuzzy
The chief minister, Okram Ibobi, probably after consultation with New Delhi has finally agreed to a judicial enquiry into the matter of fake encounter at Khwairamband Bazar on July 23, a matter which was initially hushed up until Tehelka came out with graphic photographic evidence of how the violence on the day was a case of blatant cold-blooded custodial killing and not an encounter at all.
Even after the Tehelka story, all that the government conceded was a magisterial enquiry, but as the heat of public protest mounted in the state, as well as on national news channels, the chief minister who was holed up New Delhi all the while, agreed to upgrade the probe status to judicial under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. He also suspended seven police personnel involved in the case but in a manner that again highlighted the government’s tradition of passing the buck of responsibility and accountability. The chief minister made a grossly false statement in the Assembly on the basis of what the state DG Police briefed him. The DGP briefed the CM on the basis of what a police SI briefed him. The SI was suspended. Ha! And what if the SI says he briefed the DGP on the basis of what his constable briefed him? What if the constable also claims his report was on the basis of eyewitness’ account given to him?
The issue is also being successfully commandeered to be confined to the specific instance of the July 23 crime only at the cost of missing the larger issue of whether the government has a covert policy of “fake encounter” killings. Let it not be forgotten, the murder of Chungkham Sanjit is only the last in a series of such eliminations in the last one year or so. Sanjit’s case also happens to be one caught on camera, hence the pressure on the government to duck for cover. Had the Tehelka story not happened, the Sanjit story, and not to forget, that of Thokchom Rebina, would probably by now have been closed as just some more unfortunate statistics of insurgency related violence. Even as this chapter prepares to close, it would have been time for the people to begin anticipating another chapter of similarly gruesome state executed violence.
The judicial inquiry promised into the Khwairamband killing must have a clause addressing the issue of “fake encounter” killings. The personnel hauled up in the Sanjit murder case could for instance be questioned as to whether they were following any broad policy mandate given to them. Another way of determining whether there is an official nod to fake encounters would be to ask the government to produce all the weapons it claimed to have captured from all those slain in these encounters, at one time.
From a rough estimate made from reports of these “encounters” in the local press, there should at least be 500 captured small arms, mostly 9mm pistols, with the government by now. If for instance the government is able to produce only 50 of these, it would be obvious these 50 weapons have been used over and over again to frame victims of these “fake encounters”. The government must be made to come clean on the matter. The purpose of this inquiry must also be to caution the government that such extreme acts of state violence is against the rule of law prescribed by the Constitution and international humanitarian norms.
But there are even larger debates for the society. The chief minister’s Freudian slip in the Assembly on July 23 where he in a state of agitation declared “extermination is the only way left” (the chief minister now has officially denied he ever made this statement) is a vital indicator as to where the focus of this debate should be. So is the enthusiastic endorsement of this statement by the rest of the Assembly, ruling and opposition alike, for this response is not innocent of this sentiment either. It is this underlying dark sentiment which has given a degree of unarticulated political and military legitimacy to the government’s drive of elimination by fake encounters.
The phenomenon also implies that the existing laws are unable to adequately tackle insurgency related law and order problems, inducing law keepers to increasingly lean towards extra legal mechanisms to handle the situation. The familiar complaint that law enforcers are compelled to encounter potentially dangerous adversaries over and over again because the law is unable to convict the latter after each capture is not to be taken lightly. At some point, the law keepers on the field are also bound to begin thinking in terms of the chief minister’s quoted outburst on the floors of the Assembly: “extermination is the only way left.”
The pathology is deplorable, but merely condemning it will not get anybody anywhere. The diagnosis and remedial measures are what must follow. Only this is what ultimately would make the difference.
Was it a Fake Alibi Case?
The government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the atrocious Khwairamband Bazar shooting which left two dead five injured. It is unfortunate that it took a report in a national weekly and photo evidences supporting it for the government to think such a fact finding exercise is essential. By inference it is imaginable what would be in the minds of the near and dear ones of so many others the government eliminated justifying its acts with the claim that they were militants and they were killed in “encounters”. Suddenly a lot many other cases deemed as closed and resolved as legitimate victims or collateral damage of the government’s counter insurgency campaign, seem fit cases for reopening. This is even so because of the casual manner in which the government assumed the innocence of its own forces in the Bazar killings and in the same breath shifted the blame to the insurgents as if this was the only natural thing that could have happened.
But now, quite unexpectedly, the table has turned 180 degrees. The government is now in the dock with the onus of proving innocence or more likely accountability in the case. There can be little doubt Chungkham Sanjit was killed in custody and in full view of many onlookers. The police commandos responsible for the crime were so confident of the terror they inspire in the hearts of the public that they did not bother if anybody was watching presumably in the belief nobody would dare come out with eyewitness accounts. They were not wrong, but unfortunately for them, an unnamed local photographer found out another ingenious means of telling just this story.
On the question whether this was a fake encounter, there ought not to be any further dispute. On the other hand, what now needs a fuller investigation is what provoked the killing. Was it merely a frenzy of cold-blooded passion for bloodshed, or were the policemen trying to cover up something? Circumstantial evidences as well as clues provided by some observers, including two press statements from two militant organisations, do point to the latter.
According to this theory, there was another man the commandos were after on the fateful day. He had struck down a 9mm pistol during frisking near the Bheigyachandra statue under the BT Flyover and scooted 100 meters away from the spot Sanjit was killed. The policemen gave chase and fired indiscriminately killing Thokchom Rebina Devi, a five month pregnant woman, and injuring five others. However the man escaped.
The commandos desperately needed to justify their wanton firing which had already taken casualties. They needed an alibi that there was an “encounter” and that the casualties were caused by the bullets of the insurgents. Unfortunately for Sanjit, reportedly an ex-militant, destiny brought him to the area shopping for medicine for an ailing hospitalised uncle. The commandos, who obviously have a good memorised database of former as well as active militants, recognized him and took him into custody. It took only a few minutes for them to decide not to even go through the notorious formality of taking him away to an isolated spot to kill him in an “encounter” for they needed the alibi at the Khwairabmand and at that moment. The rest is now history recorded as digital images in the camera of an anonymous photographer.
|Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati|