These various statements by both the Chief Minister and the police chief suggest, first, that the centre is responsible for the provision of both intelligence and force for the maintenance of law and order in the states, and without a surfeit of these inputs from Delhi, no liability is vested in the state agencies for any breakdown or failure. If this is the case, it is high time the Constitution was amended to bring law and order under the Concurrent List — an arrangement, I am sure, most Chief Ministers will fight tooth and nail, and one that I am personally opposed to as well.
It is curious, moreover, that the Chief Minister has expended all his worries on the absence of some 30-40 companies of central paramilitary forces – yielding barely 1,800 to 2,400 troopers on the ground – and had not a word to say about the deployment of the 54,000 plus state policemen (of which more than 25,000 are armed) directly under his command. It is absurd, moreover, to believe that the Intelligence Bureau, with under 15,000 field personnel engaged in intelligence gathering across a country of 1.23 billion, and covering every subject imaginable, will be able to provide fail-safe intelligence on every local disturbance, when the state police and intelligence apparatus, which should have a far more widespread presence across its jurisdiction, fails to detect any potential disruption.
Crucially, no lack of intelligence inputs is evident in the present case – even Congress party sources had warned, explicitly, and well in advance, of the “possibility of the outbreak of rioting… in the Kokrajhar district following the incident committed by some unknown miscreants firing four wounded and killing one Muslim person… on 6/7/12”. A series of incidents since the 25 May 2012 killing of a ‘fake’ National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) militant (later identified as a Muslim trying to extort money from local Muslims) as well as emerging tensions over attempts to grab forest land for a purported ‘Idgah’ at Bedlangmari in Kokrajhar District, gave ample warning of a developing communal confrontation. There is little evidence of any proactive effort of response on the part of the state administration or the police.
The state police leadership appears to suggest that the state police are required to deliver ‘security’, essentially, at their own convenience. As a matter of fact, the police are required to function as an ATM machine, providing, if not instantaneous, certainly quick, responses to any threat to or breach of security, whether of an individual or of a wider community.
Assam has a police to population ratio of 173 per 1,00,000, well above the Indian average of 137, though still below what would be required for comprehensive policing. If there is, moreover, an overall insufficiency of police forces in the state, after decades of insurgency and instability, this, again, can only be testimony to the incompetence and failure of the state’s leadership. It is a matter of record that, when I left Assam in 1984, in times that were far more troubled, just 35 companies of central paramilitary forces companies were available to the state. It is the management – and not just the total availability – of the force that is important.
Law and order management in troubled areas, or in areas of significant potential instability, moreover, cannot operate within a paradigm of general deployment and responses. Hard targets have to be set and maintained. In Punjab, at the very peak of insurgency, and even across the marshlands of the Mand, responses had been planned to meet a target of three minutes in the city and 15 minutes in the countryside. Police response capabilities must be located wherever their need may potentially arise – and this is a matter of continuous assessment.
Crucially, widespread violence will always have indicators and precursors, allowing for the proactive location of necessary force. The failure and neglect on the part of the Assam administration and police, in the present case, are manifest.
The second and crucial issue is the obvious effort to brush the problem of illegal migrants under the carpet, and pretend that the entire Muslim population in the Bodo areas (and across Assam) comprises ‘settlers’, who have been there, according to partisan descriptions, “for decades” or, in some imaginings, “for centuries”. Vote bank politics has created incentives to blur the lines between illegal migrants and the Assamese Muslims, and this can only have continuously catastrophic consequences.
In India’s north-east, the entire discourse around the protection of ‘tribal’ and ‘minority’ interests has been transformed into an instrument of exploitative identity politics, and at no time has any tribal population been secured against the onslaught of illegal migration. The Bodos, in particular, have been victims of wave upon wave of migration and marginalisation, and every government since independence has been guilty of complicity or neglect in this regard. The problem of progressive land alienation in Assam has never been addressed, principally because of cynical political calculations. The bare reality is, no solution to the chronic problems of this state is even possible unless the illegal migrant population is clearly identified and disenfranchised.
A significant and widespread communal conflagration like the present one in Assam can only polarise politics even further, and will find ominous resonances, particularly as India approaches an election year. The relative peace in the state – restored after decades of struggle and sacrifice by the security forces – remains tentative and fragile. It would be tragic if devious electoral calculations and political manipulations were to undermine the tenuous gains of the past years.
KPS Gill was former DGP in Punjab. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org