Dialogue October-December, 2011, Volume 13 No. 2
Assam’s crime capital
D. N. Bezboruah*
Of late, the crime scenario in Assam has become most frightening with all manner of crimes making front-page headlines in newspapers. While a whole lot of petty crimes as well as murders take place in the outlying districts of Assam, Guwahati also is indeed the crime capital of the State, with the largest number of crimes committed on any given day. Among the categories of crime that ought to shock us to the core is the increase of murders within the family—father killing son, husband murdering wife, wife removing the husband’s head with a chopper and so on. Quite often the quarrel among members of a family may be over trivial things like a log of wood, for instance. I am almost certain that one does not come up with quite so many murders by members of the same family in any other State of India. In many of these cases, excessive drinking provides that instant provocation that is the last straw and leads to actions that cannot be recalled and must be repented all one’s life. Greed is quite often the motivator of many killings both within and outside the family. People coveting someone else’s land, wealth or the proverbial neighbour’s wife can get stimulants to take their hatred of someone to such a pitch that the elimination of the adversary may seem the only ‘logical’ option. In recent times, with urban land getting scarcer by the day, we have seen the emergence of the land mafia in every town and city. This lot has no qualms at all about taking over any vacant land by force. And the sad part of this enterprise is that the police have often helped such criminal elements. There have even been instances of the personal security officers of politicians being forced to commit crimes like forcibly occupying the land of others at the behest of the politicians they protect. The most common crime, of course, is corruption—something that has long ceased to be viewed as crime in official circles—and crimes stemming from corrupt practices including neglect of duties that could lead to deaths. Recently Guwahati was the venue of attacks on businessmen by gun-toting killers. Two businessmen reported to be carrying a lot of money in their cars were shot at but providentially escaped with injuries. But people have lost count of those targets of criminal elements who were not so lucky. Among the other crimes committed outside Guwahati is the lynching or killing of women suspected to be witches. There have been several cases of women being killed on mere suspicion without the police being able to prevent such killings. These are typical cases of kangaroo courts delivering instant ‘justice’ and killings being conducted by vigilante groups. But barring such killings that do not take place in Guwahati, the city has become the crime capital of the State. It has also become a centre from where narcotic drugs that arrive from Myanmar through the Moreh route in Manipur are dispatched to other parts of the country. Finally, there are crimes that get committed due to corrupt practices that stoke total negligence of duty.
On October 21 evening, Guwahati experienced one of those flash floods that inundate the entire city after just an hour’s heavy rain. These are man-made floods that have been created over the decades through illegal constructions made legal by corrupt officials and the total disregard of the city’s drainage needs by the authorities. That evening, Benoy Mohan Das, a treasury superintendent was boarding a city bus in a flooded area when he slipped and fell into a manhole completely covered by the flood water. He was immediately carried by the flowing water in the wide open drain to a distance of about three km where his body was recovered 36 hours later. This is not the first time such a tragedy has occurred in Guwahati. In 2003, 30-year-old Upamoni Choudhury too fell into an open drain and was carried away by the swirling waters. Her dead body too was found in a drain several kilometres away a few days later. Most people would not list these as crimes. However, some of us do, because these are serious crime of negligence of duties and of security concerns of the people. They are best regarded as crimes of gross negligence that have always gone unpunished.
It is quite natural to ask (a) why there is so much more crime today; (b) why committing a crime seems to have become so easy; and (c) why the fear of criminal activity that restrained people three or four decades ago has just evaporated. It is perhaps possible to come up with one answer that fits all three questions. That answer would be: Crimes go unpunished for too long. There is so much more crime today because there is so much more greed today for what the other fellow has got and because we want all that without the willingness to put in the amount of hard work that the other fellow has put in. Values about right and wrong have become outdated. Committing a crime seems to have become so easy because many of our leaders and those that have unfortunately become role models have made it seem so. The fear of the consequence of crime is gone because people have begun to capitalize on the law’s delay and the time it takes even for criminal cases to reach the verdict stage. Most people who adopt criminal ways know that it would take years for them to get punished—if at all. Some of them make the mistake of forgetting that they might rot in jail as under-trial prisoners for years until the case is disposed of.
However, the proverbial law’s delay is not just something that the trial judges and/or the lawyers alone cause. We tend to forget that the police force is the active arm of the law, and delays by the police (where they have a role in the case) add to the law’s delay. This often happens in the handling of criminal cases because there is a genuine shortage of police personnel in Assam. Up to 31 July 2011, the number of unfilled vacancies in the police force of the State was as follows: Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) 172; Sub-inspector (SI) 218; Assistant Sub-inspector (ASI) 262; Havildar 480; and Constable 3,403. Not surprisingly, the rate of disposal of criminal cases in 2009 (according to data released by the National Crime Control Bureau in 2011) was 41.9 per cent for Assam against the national average of 73 per cent. It is the third lowest in the country after Manipur (13.2 per cent) and Meghalaya (29.9 per cent). The NCCB data also reveals that the rate of filing of charge-sheets in crime cases in Assam is 56.6 per cent against the national average of 78.4 per cent. However, these figures alone may not tell us everything about the scenario of crime investigation in the State. There are other facts too that need to be considered. One is the appointment of public prosecutors that has become the prerogative of politicians. Ever since the appointment of public prosecutors became political, their standards of performance have come down drastically. However, the shortage of personnel in the police force is made even worse by the fact that police personnel are taken away from their normal duties for VIP duty and for duty at cultural programmes and protest venues.
However, the most important reason for the rampant increase in crime is the State’s populist tendency of avoiding any punishment even when it is most deserved. One of the reasons for this is that many politicians and even elected lawmakers are themselves into crime and unlawful activities. They are invariably able to escape punishment due to intervention by ministers who make sure that police cases against them are not registered. And it is this refusal to punish those in the corridors of power and party members that has given rise to a culture of not punishing the guilty, because sparing only those in power all the time gives rise to the legitimate allegation of double standards. So create a whole new culture of pseudo-humanism (much like our pseudo-secularism) to suggest not punishing is part of the politically correct culture. So the murderer is spared, the rapist escapes, the man convicted of treason by the Supreme Court lives like a free man for years. And the police force is beginning to get the message too: Your prospects in the department are better if you let the guilty escape rather than ensuring his punishment. What is happening in our crime capital is no different from what is happening elsewhere in India too, but things acquire greater prominence by comparison. When our conviction rate and the rate of disposal of criminal cases are far lower than the national average, Assam gets to be seen as a State where letting criminals and law-breakers go unpunished is part of a populist political culture—like the distribution of computers to all students getting first divisions in their school-leaving examinations.
Inventing the enemy
‘Inventing the Enemy’, a book by “Wendy Goldman describes how during Stalin’s rule terror was unleashed by the regime on anyone suspected of being disloyal to the state. Goldman reconstructs how individuals, and activists, were caught in a web of accusation and counteraccusation, concealment and betrayal, belief and doubt. The lines between victims and perpetrators became completely blurred, not just because of the well-documented practice of self-protection, denouncing others before you became denounced yourself, but because the Bolshevik Revolution and the rapid and dramatic social changes brought about by Stalinist industrialization left no one with a ‘pure’ Bolshevik (or Stalinist) pedigree.
Even those loyal to the cause of Stalinism had family and political ties to individuals and groups singled out for repression and elimination by the Terror machine of the time. This left everyone vulnerable. Goldman tells the story of that grim era of fear and paranoia and pushes us to imagine how we might have behaved had we lived in those times. The secret police picked up all those who were of “doubtful” integrity vis-à-vis the state and terrorised them further. This book reveals the dilemmas people confronted in their struggles to survive.
Anyone who studies the security situation in this region will not miss the contours of the conflict or how each phase is projected by security forces. With the reduction in armed conflict in Assam (all prominent militant groups sitting for talks with the representative of the Government of India), things are supposed to be all quiet on this front. But is that happening? Not from the recent spate of arrest of so-called Maoists or people having links with them. It appears that the state or its security wing is all set to reinvent the ‘enemy.’ There are many reasons for this. Armed conflicts create their own constituencies of vested interests. There’s unaccounted money to be spent in unearthing information or ‘containing’ terror.
The sudden upsurge in arrests of so-called Maoists in Upper Assam makes you wonder how they have suddenly emerged on the scene and what defines a Maoist. Are all anti-dam activists also Maoists? Is dissent against certain paradigms of development equivalent to Maoism? Are protests against mal-governance also facets of Maoism? These questions need answers before we allow the state to label everyone a Maoist. The arrest of a young, spirited Adivasi woman and her personal associates on the plea that she has Maoist links is a state-invented alibi for terror. If you are an underdog fighting for your rights, chances are that the state will quash that voice sooner than later. And when the state has identified an ‘enemy’ and that enemy is usually not those who continuously pilfer the state exchequer or sell off the state’s assets for a song or are in league with extortionists or even with insurgents, but the voiceless, then God alone can save you. Look at what happened to Dr Binayak Sen. If Dr Sen is out of jail today, and on bail it is because he has a strong support group across the world. What support do poor, voiceless, peasants have to fight the state?
I am all for tackling the forces of sedition, not because they disrupt
the even tenor of life for our pompous rulers but because terrorism/militancy or its different avatars create a dissonance in governance. For a long time governments have rested on the alibi that governance suffers on account of adverse law and order situations. Much debate has gone into whether development comes first or vice versa. This is an unresolved dilemma. But I would like to believe that there is never any excuse for halting development because that precisely is the reason for unrest.
However, our paranoid security establishment is used to seeing ghosts everywhere that they are likely to shoot at their own shadows. I am also not inclined to throw my lot with the anti-development, anti-world bank anti-ADB bogey. Demonising development is fine but what are the alternatives for the poor? If we are anti-dam (mega dams in particular) it is because of the huge environmental costs that these dams extract; the displacement of populations in the areas to be dammed; the downstream repercussions and the amorphous relief and rehabilitation packages which do not reach those who deserve the money to create alternative lives and livelihoods. It is on these issues that the arguments must rest. The state as an entity to which citizens have signed a social contract with, to protect their lives and livelihoods, ought to be seen as an enlightened provider of the rule of law and other public goods and services. But is the state playing that role today?
Recent reports published by the UNDP say that the quality of life among the scheduled caste and tribes of India has gone further down the development indices. This obviously means that the much vaunted millennium development goals (MDGS) set out by the United Nations as an aspirational goal to be achieved by 2015 will remain a distant dream. This is not to say that life for the poor citizens who do not fall in the scheduled category is better.
It is also a coincidence that the bulk of natural resources are parked in poor people's habitats. They are the areas worst exploited for timber, coal, iron ore, gas, limestone et al. And how much do the people in those areas do not get enough in lieu of their resources? Peanuts. What is the environmental cost they have to pay? Poisoned rivers, loss of bio-diversity and other cascading effects! This means loss of natural eco-system, and with that several health disorders and other adverse impacts. The impacts are visible in the climate change patterns and change in cropping patterns as well. All these are insecurities that stare people in the face. Human security implies not just military security which the state is obsessed with. It means a holistic sense of security for the human person ranging from access to education, health care, livelihoods, basic needs, clean drinking water and clean air to breathe.
Needless to say, much of the above are not within reach of the majority of the poor. Many find voices in solidarity groups. But the state fails to recognise the symptoms of its failure and prefers to stick its head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. The state takes the easy way out and punishes all those who point out its failures. Some like Mr Tarun Gogoi, Assam’s serving CM for the third consecutive term, have assumed the role of a dictator who believe they ought to crush all voices of dissent. The people of Assam may be divided on their opinion about dissent and its different expressions. The elite would prefer life to proceed at an uninterrupted pace because they have everything going for them. But the poor are impatient. And unless the poor upset the current paradigm of development they are unlikely to get anything out of the state. However, doing so means paying a heavy price. Many are likely to rot in jail because they do not have the money to pay lawyers to bail them out. So is that going to crush the voices of the teeming disadvantaged groups?
Manipur: Celebrations amidst Tragedy
The October 16 Sunday edition of the widest circulated English daily in the country and arguably in the world as well, The Times of India, did a full-page feature on Manipur, calling it among others, a failed state, and possibly Independent India’s first to earn this status. A lot of others have used this label liberally in reference to the state, but coming at time such as now, it should have a special significance.
This is not just about what the government bosses in New Delhi whose pleasure is vital for the health of the government in the state would think the affairs in the state when they see the story, but much more about what this kind of persistent negative publicity would do to the morale of the state and its people as a whole.
All the pride that every chest in the state swell with at the news of our great achievers in the arts, sports, various intellectual fields and indeed heroic resistances to injustice put up by heroic people like Irom Sharmila, end up undone so thoroughly every time the state gets a public hammering with bad press earned by the performance of our leadership class of politicians and bureaucrats.
The stigma of a rampantly corrupt state, non-performing and slothful bureaucracy, the tantrums of filthily rich progenies of government officials and ministers with their nouveau riche opulent lifestyles, the wayward killer policemen, the raging insurgency movements most of which have lost the plot in the new modern environment, the inability of the state’s political and intellectual leadership to come up with an imaginative resolution to this problem, and now its inability to even take care of a siege of the state for over three months are nothing anybody in the state would be encouraged about. It is surprising that in the face of such allegations, those on whom the charges are levelled can walk with their heads held high.
What is even more dangerous for Manipur is the ruling clique’s brazen disregard of public opinion even at being abused publicly with the meanest words. This absolute absence of moral shock at being pronounced guilty of heinous crimes is akin only to the psychological makeup of pathological killers and hardened criminals. But if they do not give two hoots about what reputed newspapers and televisions accuse them of, the shame and outrage that fail to register with them invariably pass on the public of Manipur.
Imaging the silent trauma students from the state studying outside the state, as well as young professionals seeking their careers in various metropolises of the country, would be going through at reading about their homes written in these manners in these newspapers. Since those accused would not challenge these reports and broadcasts, these young men and women too would have no other choice than to silently absorb the humiliation.
Can children growing up with such psychology ever be able to be proud of themselves and their heritage? Consequently, can these impressionable minds growing up ashamed of their selves and their guardians, and being made to be always ultra sensitive of every talk of corruption even amongst peers in their school and colleges, ever have healthy approaches to life? There cannot be a worse crime committed to the future of Manipur than this by this generation, particularly the power wielders.
It has not happened in the past, so it will be unrealistic to expect it now, but we wish the government would challenge the accusations levelled at it and its functionaries by the newspaper named. This at least would put the ball back in play. Their silence now would mean a public and cowardly acceptance of guilt. If the charges were minor, and to that extent results of understandable shortcomings, the damage to public morale would have been manageable. But when a government is accused of rampant thievery of public exchequer, including executing Centrally sponsored schemes only on paper, it cannot simply remain silent.
Even if the leaders privately know they are guilty of many of the charges, public decorum and protocol demand that they seek proofs from those making the allegations at the pain of facing legal defamation suits if they fail to comply. After all, they are public leaders and not private citizens and therefore their responsibility is to not just about saving their own skins but also of rescuing public reputation of the state and its people as a whole which they have so badly soiled.
Meanwhile Manipur continues to be afflicted by multiple crises. It is a wonder Manipur continues to trudge along despite so many different forces violently pulling it in different directions, some with the avowed intent of dismantling and destroying it. It is equally a wonder that the people by and large have remained calm and stoic at such times. For it should surprise anybody that without any overt complaint, as if it is what fate has willed them, people queue up for petrol through the night at the petrol pumps which had been designated for rationed distribution of the commodity for the day.
This resilience is next to confounding, and obviously it is a boon for the government of the day. But let the government not take things too much for granted. Tempers could explode on the streets without warning as patience all around is being stressed beyond limits. We earnestly hope it does not happen, but it would be prudent for everybody, especially the government, to be wary that even a spark can cause raging infernos in such an atmosphere as the state is in today.
Revelry Amidst Trauma
But this response is a peculiar character of the place. Those curious about the Second World War experience of Manipur and go to elders who saw the war for their account of what happened will often be left confounded at the consummate ease with which they said the people handled these tragedies and made light of them. Especially amongst the Meiteis, who had the hardest time, as Imphal was the target of the advancing Japanese Imperial Army since May 1942 when Imphal began to see Japanese air raids, although the infantry arrived only in April 1944 to engage in some of the most bitter battles with the Allied troops already stationed in Imphal.
The first Japanese bombs landed in Imphal on May 10 morning, a Sunday, in 1942. Imphal residents were advised to evacuate their homes, and elders of practically every family, whose numbers are expectedly rapidly on a decline, after all the war they saw was nearly 70 years ago, have a story to tell of how they had to take refuge at homes of relatives and friends in the rural areas. As always the sense of profound tragedy that the cataclysmic event was for them is what is conspicuously missing from their stories. The hosts as well as the refugees took the matter in their own strides, and in most cases made adversities sound like playful adventures.
Anecdotal elements in many of these stories concur on how for instance several people were killed in certain bomb raids during a khubak eishei (a form of coquettish song and dance show performed by professional dance girls) or during a community feast or a shumang lila (courtyard play). In other words, even in the times of the most fearsome wars, people continued to heartily take part in entertainment activities, performing arts never lost pace or patrons, feasting continued as much as during peacetimes. This characteristic of the Meiteis must bewilder observers.
Call it foolhardiness or call it resilience, this is exactly what has seen the community through traumatic times exactly by shutting off memories of these traumatic events from their collective psychology. The love for the arts evident in these tales is also without doubt what has raised performing arts of the people to the elevated position it enjoys today worldwide. One dance form has been classified Indian classical, but there are so many others that have enchanted in their own ways.
But this peculiar and indeed unique personality trait of the numerically dominant community in the state is still loudly visible today. The manner in which they have been taking the hardships of insurgency, and more immediately, the prolonged economic blockades with little complaint is enough to demonstrate this. But more than this, amidst the blockade the manner their festivals like the Durga Puja and Diwali were celebrated would deceive new comers if there are any semblance of embedded traumas within the society. Another festival, arguably one of their most cherished and important, Ningol Chakouba, too has gone by a week later without any shortfall in spirit.
Perhaps this is the psychological principle of “repression” or memory shutdown that individuals who have been subjected to extremely traumatic experiences capable of damaging his or her psychological constitution, undergoes, although in this case on a societal scale. Perhaps this hedonistic exterior of the Meitei society is what has been keeping its sanity intact amidst all the madness of insurgency and counterinsurgency violence and other coercions all around.
True enough, on the faces of the young girls who thronged the Hiyangthang Temple on the occasion of Bor during Durga Puja or in the manner fire crackers boomed on Diwali, there is nothing to suggest that the people are reeling under hardships heaped on them by the current blockades.
While this “ego defence” strategy of the society may be an extreme and automatic self preservation response, and despite the good it has done, it must be subjected to therapy ultimately for when it becomes a lifestyle rather than a situational reaction, it can become an endemic compulsive problem with many adverse effects. Take the manner in which they have also been tolerating bad governance evident in the paucity of drinking water, bad roads, scarce electricity, official corruption... Here too is loudly visible the same fatalism, and there can be no dispute that in this case it can spell the doom of the society if unchecked at all.
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