Speech at AIMC National Convention on Terrorism and Justice (APRIL 27, 2008)

Coping With Fear by Asking the Right Questions
Dr. M Manzoor Alam

Let me begin it with an open and frank admission of my own smallness. I am here before you not as an expert, but a humble student of public affairs, an ordinary citizen of this extraordinary land. I count myself lucky to have been in the company of some of the greatest activists and advocates of human rights and civil liberties, the best legal minds of our time as well as leaders of the minorities, including their religious leaders. That long association with such worthy people as well as my own close observations of the national scene have convinced me that all is not well with our society, our polity, our public life.

Everyday we are witness to extra-judicial killings in absolutely illegal and unconstitutional police encounters, deaths in police custody, torture and disappearances that are inexplicable, unjustifiable. Police officers like Daya Nayak of Mumbai and DG Vanzara of Gujarat are only two of the hundreds of such police officers across the country who have got fabulously rich by illegally killing people and through intimidation and extortion. (Thank God, and also the judiciary, that Nayak and Vanzara are behind the bars today).

From what I gather from my interactions with luminaries like you as well as from my own observations I come to the conclusion that things have got terribly out of hand. A section of our political class, along with a larger section of the law-keeping machinery, has developed a vested interest in an environment of fear--fear against unknown enemies who could possibly have a Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Dalit face. That enemy must be crushed, and to hell with the Constitution, the due process of law, even common sense. This vested interest, and this logic of the vested interest, is geared to garner the majority vote. After all, a majority too has its fears. And the corrupt law and order machinery finds a good cover under this majoritarian fear (nurtured by the political class) to hide all its excesses, extra-judicial killings and its extortion racket.

It is generally accepted that we can get to solve most of our problems by beginning to ask the right questions. In all humility I would like to request that you ask those right questions today so that we are finally able to salvage the honour of the Constitution and restore the rule of law. As far as I see it, we are fortunate to be governed by an august Constitution that is among the best in the world. That the three organs of the state - the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary - are contributing their share in creating a just and humane society through good governance and fair play. Let us ask ourselves the question honestly, "Do we really think so?" If that is the case then how do we explain: (1) a scandal-ridden Executive (2) a Judiciary that allows a situation where cases have to be transferred by the Supreme Court from Ahmedabad to Mumbai fearing lack of judicial fair play (3) a Legislature that, right from the state assemblies to national Parliament, is infested with history- sheeters, to the extent that Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria calls it "robber democracy" in his book Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracies at Home and Abroad.

We have to ask ourselves why it is that lawyers in several districts of Uttar Pradesh, whose livelihood depends on the due process of law, are openly and blatantly denying it to the accused by refusing to plead their case? If this is allowed, what would happen to the basic principles of law, the right of the accused to explain their position and tell their side of the truth. Did not the people accused of killing Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi get lawyers to plead their cases? After all, an accused is not necessarily a convict also. Had it been so, out of 77,000 accused in TADA cases as many as 72,000 would not have been honourably acquitted.

By the way, I had forgotten to mention the fourth (informal) organ of our state, the Press, or the media. We have to ask the question as to why it is that if some innocent citizen is killed by a lawless police force, within minutes of the incident the media goes to town with concocted police stories about the murdered person in a credulous, uncritical way, rather than applying its own mind to it. The murdered person's honour is thus murdered by the media. In a large number of cases such claims turn out to be mere cock-and-bull stories. Of course, there are honourable exceptions to this, but exceptions, we know, do not make the rule.

We would be well-advised to see whether there is a class angle to it. Why are only the religious minorities, Dalits and tribals subjected to such ill-treatment by the state that is supposed to be built on egalitarian and secular principles? Why is Muslim presence in jails much larger than their share in the population, or jobs? It reminds me of the US class bias where virtually all people on the death row are blacks and jails are swarming with them, while they constitute only five percent of the population.

Although it is subject to confirmation from you, the thinking heads in this assembly, but I have a strong feeling that the political class (at least a section of it) feels that it can benefit only from the loss of the minorities, tribals and Dalits. It feels the constitutional order is not in its best interests. That seems to explain much of what is happening. A section of the law and order machinery is thriving under this dispensation, the dispensation of contrived fear. Rule of law will never suit these classes, but without rule of law we can not hope for a happy, prosperous nation.

Today, nearly one-third of India is living under the shadow of fear of Naxal violence. However, instead of recognising the root causes of the malaise the system is out to brutalise innocent people under the mistaken belief that it is fighting Naxal violence. I would like to lend support to the Grand Old Lady of Indian Literature, Mahashweta Devi, who rejects the state's prescription for curbing Naxal violence. She sagely advises the state to address the root causes of the problem rather than trying to brutalise common people in the name of fighting terror.

We have to take note of a very subtle point here: The group that was behind Mahatma Gandhi's murder, Babri Majid demolition, Gujarat pogrom (and hundreds of riots since 1947) is pushing its own agenda of targeting Muslims under the cover of its own brand of "anti-terrorism" campaign. It is creating an enemy image of Muslims and trying to implicate them in all kinds of plots, real and imagined. No valid remedy of the present malaise is possible without taking this into consideration. This group thrives on creating mutual fear and suspicion. I must reassure you in the words of President Franklin Delano Roosvelt, "There is nothing to fear, but fear itself."

Cheap short cuts and hasty labeling would not do. "Terrorism" can not be used as a convenient tool for hiding the excesses of the ruling class and the illegal practices of the law-keeping machinery. We are here to put our heads together and think of ways of retrieving this country from the sorry state of rampant lawlessness, violence and corruption. That would be the first step towards setting the record straight on "terrorism and justice".  g

(Speech at AIMC National Convention on Terrorism and Justice on April 27, 2008)

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