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Saturday, October 4, 2003

Most of us are still recovering from the shocking attack on the chief minister’s convoy. Fortunately the chief minister escaped with minor injuries, while some of his colleagues are seriously injured.  This is the latest episode in the ongoing violent struggle with the extremist naxal groups, which saw some brutal and gruesome attacks over the past few years during which both sides stand accused of grave excesses.

We have a glorious tradition of non-violence and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Gandhiji proved to the nation and the world that even the mighty British Empire can be brought to its knees through non-violent means. Why is it then, 56 years after independence, we still have violent conflicts in various pockets of the country? Within the limitations of this column, I will try to examine the role of violence in a democratic society.

What is the process that governs the relations between various individuals and groups in a diverse society? To a large extent, the answer to this question indicates the level of maturity of any society and usually varies from country to country and from time to time. If this question was posed with Europe in view, the answer would be violence in the dark ages and political process in the modern era. The road that brought Europe from the savage dark ages to the enlightened modern era is a long and tortuous one. In spite of the overwhelming presence of a democratic system on most of the continent, there are aberrations like Bosnia and Kosovo from time to time, which degenerated into violent conflicts erasing any notions of a civil society. Even the United States had to undergo a tumultuous civil war, which has bitterly divided the country, despite having a robust and revolutionary constitution.

In any society, at all times there will be people or groups with differing opinions. The political process that facilitates and moderates a dialogue between these groups is the hallmark of a modern democratic society. That’s what differentiates an Afghanistan or Burundi from a Britain or India. Even when your disagreements are of an irreconcilable/fundamental nature, you are still expected to play by the rules of the game set by the political process. When the fairness of the process itself is in question, it will lead to anarchy and ultimately violence.

In my view that is precisely what is happening in India. Many of these extremist outfits, irrespective of whether their grievances are legitimate or not, have come to question the legitimacy of the political process. They are increasingly of the view that there is no political space for them to express their views/aspirations. Given the cynical and perverted nature of the current political process, where money, muscle and family power are the only things that count, they view the whole process as illegitimate. We have to strive to create a fair and just society, where every citizen/group will be secure and has a fair chance of being heard. Only when they perceive that the process if fair and legitimate, will they have an incentive to abhor the path of violence and indulge in a process of dialogue.  The failure of rule of law coupled with the inaccessible and tardy judicial system, their grievances border on sounding legitimate. But does that make the path they have chosen, i.e. violence legitimate? The answer is an emphatic NO.

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