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Political churning in Bengal

Withdrawing troops from a volatile Darjeeling comes at a crucial time.

Political churning in Bengal

How can you withdraw forces without citing adequate reasons", said Calcutta High Court to the Indian Union government. On October 17, 2017, a stay order from Calcutta High Court on the withdrawal of Central paramilitary forces from the troubled Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal has temporarily averted a constitutional crisis precipitated by the Union government's actions. The long-troubled Darjeeling hills had recently seen a split in the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) with the now apparently dominant faction led by Binay Tamang taking over the responsibilities of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration., a semi-autonomous unit within the Government of West Bengal. The recent months have seen strong civic unrest, which have often turned violent. Most recently, Sub Inspector Amitabha Malik of the West Bengal police was killed in a shootout with bodyguards of the absconding GJM faction leader Bimal Gurung who till recently was the main face of the Gorkhaland movement.

At this critical juncture, when the situation in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal remains tense and troubled, the order from the Union Home Ministry to withdraw 10 of the 15 companies of paramilitary forces from Darjeeling was extraordinary. It was indeed a political move with an aim to pressurise the West Bengal government. This move that could only help destabilise the law and order situation in Darjeeling is part of a longer tussle on the question of Army and central paramilitary force deployment in West Bengal in recent times. Earlier this year, the Army was suddenly deployed in various locations in West Bengal who were checking cars and doing other things without permission of the State government. This was patently illegal. When the Darjeeling troubles broke out a few months ago, Centre refused to send additional 4 companies of paramilitaries and was forced to do so after Calcutta High Court order. Now Centre tried to withdraw two-third of the companies while the situation remains volatile – this itself being a violation of the earlier High Court order. Its reason – upcoming Assembly elections in some states. The falsity of that reason is exposed when one looks at the number of companies of Central paramilitaries deployed in various states where no polls are due but from where they have not been withdrawn for the same reason – Jharkhand 144, Chhattisgarh 252, Delhi 40, Odisha 84, Jammu and Kashmir 702, Bihar 48. The Calcutta High Court saw through this and trashed the Central government's dubious argument.
But this use of central paramilitary forces by Union government as a political tool against an elected State government should be an issue of grave concern. It also politicizes the central para-military, which is a very dangerous thing to do. After the October 17 Calcutta High Court judgement about the stay on the Central forces withdrawal order, the IG of CRPF went of record on saying that Union Home Ministry has sent the central paramilitary forces to the hills only to maintain law and order. He also added that the force is unable to do anything else. What does the IG CRPF mean? In any case, where the CRPF is deployed, its job is to go by its briefing in coordination with the State government. Does IG CRPF issue such public clarifications on routine operation rules in every case of its deployment? If not, why did he do it in this case? People of Bengal are not fools. They also pay for the CRPF through taxes paid by West Bengal to the Centre. The military and para-military should not issue any statement that is political in its significance. If the forces are not neutral and make political statements with insinuations that help the Centre's agenda against West Bengal government, it is an assault on the democratic rights of all the people of West Bengal. The Constitution has given the right to bear firearms to the CRPF for certain functions. Being a political tool of the Centre is not one of them. No one should play with fire.
All this is also part of the political churning in Bengal ever since the rise of the Trinamool. Beyond the Delhi media narratives of minority appeasement and syndicate goondaism, something else is at play here. Remember what Mamata's political support base partially represented when she broke from Congress in 1997. This also represents the withdrawal from the Congress of remaining section of the rural South Bengal Congress class, which had joined Congress India system fully only after the political period of CR Das's death and Subhas Bose's disappearance in 1945. That may not have been Mamata's intent but that is the result. From 1945 to now, much has changed. Much has not.
It is pretty bad that the Courts had to adjudicate twice in the State's favor on the question of Central forces, a very rare event for various reasons, across all States. It shows the degree to illegality and unconstitutionality of the violation. This is not wartime. Law and order is solely State's business. State orders what it needs. The Centre needs to supply it. It exists to provide security-related services to the people of the state represented by their State government. It cannot use that sole supply power as a tool of threat. It cooked up a dubious reason. The Courts struck that down only because it was challenged. Think of all the State rights violations that go on in the Indian Union because the State government is either subservient or dependent or blackmailed or have a bureaucracy-hijacked administration. At any given point of time, that represents a significant proportion of the State governments in the Indian Union. State governments are executors of State rights. Those rights belong to the people of the State. When an encroachment of State rights goes unopposed, it means that people's rights are being eroded. That adds to the huge and expanding attack by the Centre on State rights through undemocratic means ever since the start of the Indian Union, with only very short periods of non-expansion of attack – the Janata Party regime, the National Front regime, and the United Front regime. A contraction of the power of an entity that represents the particular democratic political expression of a particular State, that is, a contraction of State rights, is a contraction in the overall rights of the people of that State.
All constitutions have certain tacit contractual elements between the stakeholders. It also has an unwritten part – the political and social reality of the parties to the constitution and their self-identities. The constitution is also a treaty between the various linguistic peoples who populated and were in political control of certain zones of this subcontinent and were commonly colonized by the British. That is whom the British ruled. How could they have ceded power to anyone else? British never ruled a 'Centre'. It ruled through the Centre, a fundamentally colonial entity at its core. It ruled the States. That represents a ceding away of power from the people. The powers that British took away were to be reversed. That was the promise of 1947 and the tacit political understanding for the various big groups, now called States – the constitutional euphemism of an ethno-linguistic homeland of a certain dominant-within group. That is just reality. All citizens of the Indian union should notice what just happened. This concerns all of them. This is not an ordinary moment for the political life of the Bengali people and the people of West Bengal. The Union or the Centre has broken a very fundamental part of the contract called the constitution and this amounts to an insult to the powers that the Bengalis and the people of West Bengal have ceded to the Centre. They agreed that Centre should be given the power to defend. That is a contract that should never be tested. The Centre did just that. It has committed a grievous crime. This should also be something that all the other non-AFSPA states should watch. This kind of Central behavior does not augur well for the non-Hindutva states. These kinds of things typically don't end well – this way or another. The Centre must rectify what it has done and declare explicitly that it has done a wrong.
The federal structure, part of the basic structure of the constitution, is not some Central law. It is a compact between the various peoples of the Indian Union, including what Delhi may like to call "sub-nationalities'. The Centre crossed a red line that violates the federal structure in a way that becomes non-negotiable. So is peace. The Centre shouldn't do this again. The State government represents the fundamental aspects of the democratic political will of the people. Violating that is a violation of the democratic character of the Indian Union state. Whenever any expressions of that happen, it is bad news for everybody. Unilateral withdrawal of Army from a State is basically a way to threaten an entity which has given up certain powers to the Centre and the Centre pooling the resources from those given-up powers to create an apparatus that can among other things, withdraw that ceded power call-back guarantee. That is robbing the rights of a people that they have given up in trust and circumstance and in many cases, plain threat. Withdrawal of Army unilaterally is also a way to demonstrate the defenselessness of a State given that a State doesn't presently have the constitutional power to raise forces with firepower same as CRPF. It is basically a political demonstration of the raw power of the Union ruling class and its dependents. It is a very bad threat – a kind of threat that is designed to disturb the peace. That is a path that should be avoided. Peace is the most important thing.
(Views are strictly personal.)

Garga Chatterjee

Garga Chatterjee

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