On 17 October, 2017, a stay order from the Calcutta High Court on the withdrawal of central paramilitary forces from the troubled Darjeeling Hills temporarily averted a constitutional crisis precipitated by the Union government’s actions.
The long-troubled Darjeeling Hills recently saw 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 (GTA), a semi-autonomous unit within the Government of West Bengal.
The recent months have seen strong civic unrest, which have often turned violent. This caused the death of several Gorkhaland agitators, both unarmed and armed. Concomitantly, attacks have been carried out on Government of West Bengal offices, police stations and installations as well as the office of the Trinamool Congress.
Most recently, Sub-Inspector Amitabha Malik of the West Bengal Police was killed in a shootout with body guards of the absconding GJM faction leader Bimal Gurung who, till recently, was the main face of the Gorkhaland movement.
Bimal Gurung is wanted by the West Bengal Police. He faces charges under the draconian UAPA. Gurung has occasionally been reported to be hiding in Sikkim, where the Gorkhaland cause has a natural resonance with the majority Nepali ethnic population of Sikkim. The West Bengal and Sikkim Police have attempted to arrest him twice. Trinamool leadership has alleged that Sikkim Police aided Gurung's escape.
Sikkim chief minister Pawan Chamling wrote to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, backing the Gorkhaland movement. His letter said, “We all are aware that Sikkim and Darjeeling share a very close bond with similarities of language, culture, tradition, caste and food habits. As immediate neighbours, we Sikkimese, wish them well forever. We have always been there for the people of Darjeeling Hills in times of need and we reiterate that they have our all-out support for the demand of separate state of Gorkhaland”.
Trinamool general secretary and the Education Minister of West Bengal Partha Chatterjee wrote back to Rajnath Singh, asking the Centre to tell Sikkim to not meddle in West Bengal’s internal affairs. It is true that this sort of meddling has no constitutional mandate.
Malik's killing has created a groundswell of anger in West Bengal, riding on the widespread Bengali sentiment of resisting division of the state. The narrative across the spectrum of Bengali media is in support of the sentiment. This helps the Trinamool as it has successfully positioned itself as the party representing Bengali interests on the Gorkhaland question.
The West Bengal branch of the BJP finds itself isolated from the Bengali political sphere on this issue. The fact that the 2014 BJP manifesto expressed support for the Gorkhaland demand and the fact that the BJP won the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat twice in 2009 and 2014 supported by Gurung is something from which the West Bengal branch of BJP cannot dissociate itself. BJP’s state chief Dilip Ghosh’s statements in support of Gurung hasn’t helped either. In fact, it has only further alienated it from the Bengali political mainstream.
At this critical juncture, when the situation in the Darjeeling Hills 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, which could destabilise the law and order situation in Darjeeling, is part of a longer tussle on the question of army and central paramilitary forces deployed in West Bengal in recent times. Earlier this year, the army was suddenly deployed in various locations across West Bengal. The army, among other things, checked cars without the permission of the state government. This was patently illegal.
When the trouble in Darjeeling broke out a few months ago, the Centre refused to send an additional four paramilitary companies. It was forced to do so after Calcutta High Court order. Now, the Centre attempted to withdraw two-third of the companies even as the situation remained volatile: A violation of the earlier court order.
Its reason? Upcoming Assembly elections in some states. The faulty logic stands exposed when one looks at the number of paramilitary companies 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 these paramilitary forces by the Union government as a political tool against an elected state government should be of grave concern. It also politicises the paramilitary forces, which is a very dangerous thing to do.
After the 17 October judgment, the Inspector General of the Central Reserve Police Force went on the record and said that the Union Home Ministry sent 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 inspector general mean?
In any case where the CRPF is deployed, its job is to go by its briefing in coordination with the state government. Does the inspector general issue such public clarifications on routine operation rules in every case of its deployment? If not, why did he do so in this case? The people of Bengal are not fools. They pay for the CRPF through taxes paid by the state to the Centre.
The military and paramilitary 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 Congress. Pranab Mukherjee, an important political player during the significant period of full integration and political subservience of the rural South Bengal Congress class to the unipolar Congress India system of the Congress years, said in a his recent book that the rise of Mamata’s party is a significant event in the political life of Bengal.
Indeed, it is the first Bengali headquartered party to hold power in Bengal since 1947. Given his views on the linguistic question in the 1980s, I think he knows exactly why. 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 joined Congress India system fully only after the political period of CR Das’s death and Subhas Chandra 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 news that the courts had to adjudicate twice in the state’s favour on the question of central forces, which is a very rare event for various reasons. It shows the degree of the illegality and unconstitutionality of the violation. This is not wartime. Law and order is solely the business of the state government. The state issues orders as per it needs. The Centre needs to supply the state. It exists to provide security-related services to the people of state represented via their government.
The Centre cannot use that power as a tool with which to threaten the state. It cooked up a dubious reason. The courts struck that down only because it was challenged. Think of all the states' rights violations that go on in the Union because the state government is either subservient, dependent or blackmailed or which has an administration hijacked by the bureaucracy. At any given point of time, that works out to a significant number of state governments in the Union.
State governments are executors of state rights. Those rights belong to the people of the state. When the states' rights are encroached upon without any push back, it means that the rights of the people are being eroded. Which only adds to the huge and expanding attack by the Centre on states' rights through undemocratic means ever since the start of the Union, with only very short periods of non-expansion: The Janata Party regime, the National Front regime and the United Front regime.
A contraction of the power of an entity which 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 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 were in political control of certain zones of this subcontinent and were commonly colonised by the British. That is whom the British ruled. How could they have ceded power to anyone else? The 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 group. That is just reality.
All citizens of the Union should take note of what just occurred. This concerns all of them. This is not an ordinary moment in 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 them. That is a contract that should never have been tested. The Centre tested that compact. It has committed a grievous crime. This should also be something that all the other non-AFSPA states should watch. This kind of behavior by the Centre does not augur well for the non-Hindutva states.
These kinds of things typically don’t end well: One way or the other. The Centre must make amends for what it has done and declare that it has wronged the people of Bengal. 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 Union, including what Delhi may like to call “sub-nationalities’.
The Centre crossed a red line which violates the federal structure in a way that becomes non-negotiable. So is peace. The Centre shouldn’t make this mistake again.
The state government represents the fundamental aspects of the democratic political will of the people. Violating that means violating the democratic character of the Union. Whenever that happens, it's bad news for everyone. Unilaterally withdrawing an 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 which 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, a plain threat.
Withdrawal of army unilaterally is also a way to demonstrate the defenselessness of a state given that a state doesn’t have the constitutional means to raise forces with firepower 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: The kind designed to disturb the peace. That path should be avoided.
Peace is the most important thing.
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Updated Date: Oct 18, 2017 23:02:02 IST