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Revisiting the 'Underground'

Revisiting the 'Underground'

Even as the surreptitious actions of the State's "agents" find no criticism or abhorrence by its custodians, the polity, the intellectuals and the media, movements and organisations disenchanted with the State are adopting similar "underground" ways to express their revulsion and hatred.

COMMENTARY

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Revisiting the ‘Underground’

Sumanta Banerjee

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r eleased by the Mumbai police are no dif
ferent from those on the dead faces of the
Naxalites whose pictures occasionally ap
pear in our newspapers after they are shot
down in “encounters”. These snapshots

Even as the surreptitious actions of the State’s “agents” find no criticism or abhorrence by its custodians, the polity, the intellectuals and the media, movements and organisations disenchanted with the State are adopting similar “underground” ways to express their revulsion and hatred.

Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

The underground has its own aristocracy

– an aristocracy of absence – and the highest title of all is conferred by death…at the end of a lifetime’s work, the removal of the corpse coincides with the removal of the d isguise.

– Regis Debray: Undesirable Alien, 1975.

T
he underground that nurtured Che Guevara and his comrades in Latin America (about which Debray writes), or sheltered Charu Mazumdar’s followers in the Indian countryside, is far, far away – ideologically and temperamentally – from the madrasas and the purported Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-run camps in and around Peshawar and L ahore which trained the mujahideen guerrillas who went on a killing spree on 26 November 2008. But the corpses of the underground quite often look the same. The frozen eyes of the young mujahideens that stare at you from the photographs capture the last moments – sometimes the eyes staring out in surprise or hatred,

o ften closing down in accepting the finality of the assignments to which the underground had sent them. They are flaunted as trophies by triumphant counterinsurgency experts of the state who kill them. They also remain etched in the memory of their respective admirers as they are hailed as martyrs by their leaders who sent them on their last missions. Thus they become “aristocrats”.

But there are some operatives of the u nderground who miss that promotion. These are the underground agents of the state who get caught. Once their disguise is removed, they become pariahs – disowned by their patrons – and they remain the unsung villains of sordid conflicts between belligerent states. Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone gunman taken alive during the Mumbai terror attacks, is discarded as a hot potato by his masters in Islamabad

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(who refuse to give him any legal aid by pretending that he is a “non-state actor”).

Even in India (where he remains in custody), a senior Supreme Court judge is on record as saying that he is “an animal…to be treated like terrorist and not like ordinary criminals…” (Justice Arijit Pasayat, speaking at a seminar organised by the Indian Law Institute in New Delhi on 27 January, as reported in Indian Express the next day). It speaks volumes of the quality of justice that one can expect from the apex court of the world’s leading d emocracy.

Ajmal Amir’s fate is shared by Indian s ecret agents (whether those languishing in Pakistan jails, or those operating within India). The trail of investigation into the Mumbai attacks, for instance, has led to the discovery of an Indian spy, who ironically enough has become a victim of our government’s faux pas. Mukhtar Ahmed Sheikh, a 35-year old Kashmiri, was arrested in Kolkata recently on the charge of collecting SIM cards, at least one of which is suspected to have been used by the terrorists in the Mumbai attack. Now that his family has spilt the beans, it transpires that Mukhtar had actually been an undercover agent of the Jammu and Kashmir police force for quite some time, and had won approbation from his superiors for having successfully infiltrated the ranks of the Lashkar-e-Toiba – the Pakistan-based terrorist group allegedly behind the M umbai attacks. His collection of SIM cards was apparently a part of his underground operation (Indian Express, 7 December 2008). Quite understandably, the Jammu and Kashmir police on whose payroll Mukhtar still remains, is tightlipped. It is yet to be ascertained whether he d eliberately handed over the SIM card to them as a part of a long-term strategy to win the confidence of the enemy (an ageold trick followed by undercover agents), or if he was acting as a double-agent (again a common practice among spies).

Disposing of spies in a hospital or bumping them off in a manipulated traffic accident seems to be the two most favourite modes of disposal of unwanted spies in I ndia. R S Nagarwala, believed to be a R esearch and Analysis Wing (RAW) intelligence officer who was caught in 1971 collecting money from the State Bank of India in the name of the then Prime Minister

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I ndira Gandhi, mysteriously died in a D elhi hospital on 2 March 1972, while a senior police officer who was investigating the case was earlier killed in a car collision on the Grand Trunk Road near Mathura on 20 November 1971. The probe ended thereafter, despite popular suspicion of some underhand financial dealings among the upper echelons of the government. Curiously enough, neither the successive regimes in New Delhi nor the Indian judiciary (which can always suo motu intervene in such cases) cared to reopen it, and the press too chose to give up on it.

Today also, occasional incriminating revelations about high treason by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and RAW officers (like passing on sensitive information to foreign agents) who escape abroad are systematically made to disappear from the columns of the media and the debates in Parliament. Even when attempts are made by some former RAW officers to expose these misdeeds, the government clamps down – as evident from its panicky response to V K Singh’s book India’s External Intelligence: Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing, published in 2007. The CBI has brought a chargesheet against him for “disclosing classified information”. (Funnily enough, all such information, according to Singh, is available online on Wikipedia.)

‘Underground’ of Indian State

This obsessive insistence on secrecy by the Indian State is shared even by the most l iberal-minded democrats among Indian politicians and intellectuals, as well as the supposedly free media, on the plea that disclosures would harm “national security”. It is the holy cow that is used by the Indian intelligence agencies not only to deny the citizens their right to information about matters of vital importance, but also to persecute certain sections of our people by tarnishing them as “terrorists”, without any valid proof (as in the case of Aftab Alam Ansari, an electrician from Kolkata who was picked up by the Special Task Force and Anti-Terrorist Squad in December 2007, framed on trumped up charges, and tortured for days – to be released later when proved innocent; or the ostracising of Azamgarh Muslims as terrorists, reviving the old colonial practice of branding certain communities as “criminal tribes”).

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Even when these agencies whisk away young Kashmiris from their homes in n octurnal raids, and kill them in the secrecy of forests, and then publicise these cold-blooded murders as encounters with Pakistani terrorists, or when they train armed groups of vigilantes from among surrendered terrorists in Kashmir and A ssam, and recruit mercenaries for the notorious Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, they continue to enjoy immunity from any parliamentary scrutiny of their acts. There is no audit of their use of the funds (made available to them from the taxes that we pay). The lack of accountability has turned their sleuths into unbridled horses – some among whom seek promotion within their ranks by enacting false encounters, and while many others look for greener pastures abroad by selling information to the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Behind the layers of secrecy which cushion them, these underground agencies have also been used by crafty rulers in New Delhi not only to violate human rights in the name of counter-insurgency, but also to subvert democratic movements in parts of the country through underhand deals – either by buying off some of their leaders, or by infiltrating into the movements to sow divisions, or even by supporting armed insurgents to hassle state governments run by the opposition (the most infamous example being the training given by the Special Security Bureau of the RAW to the All Bodo Students Union in Assam in the late 1980s). While New Delhi today, from a moral high ground, is sneering at Islamabad’s use of the euphemism “non-state actors” to disown its armed mercenaries such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba, did not our RAW host and train similar “ actors” of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on our soil to re-export them to Sri Lanka some two decades ago?

In an ironical twist, such undercover activities of the Indian State have provoked the birth of the oppositional other – a vast underground ranging from hideouts of the victims of state terror to lairs of the disgruntled state-created Frankensteins who have now spiralled out of its control. Whether the secessionist militants in Kashmir, Assam and the north-east, or the Maoists in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh –

COMMENTARY

they reflect back upon the long history of the Indian State’s too-clever-by-half policy of combining violent suppression of democratic movements of protest with underhand designs to sow divisions in such movements, without any honest attempt to address their grievances in these areas.

Pathology of Underground

There is however a sting in the tail. The parallel underground of the “non-state a ctors” is in a debilitating disarray – confused in a clash of incompatible forces. The regional, religious and ethnic-based armed insurgencies, driven by the m omentum of their respective sectarian ideologies, are deflected from their original target (the State) and are regressing into desperate acts of terrorism that target the outsider “other” (religious minorities, poor migrants), or in fits of pique to demonstrate their might, decimate innocents in indiscriminative bomb attacks. The alternative underground stream of Maoist armed struggle which is motivated by the egalitarian ideology of socialism is dangerously inching towards similar resentful terroristic outbursts as a knee-jerk reaction to the state’s dragnet that is closing in to besiege their narrow base. Their demonstrative operations, like the killing of some village pradhan on the specious suspicion of him being a police spy, or the disruption of power supply or railway services by sabotage, alienate them from the common people who suffer from their irresponsible actions. They are replicating the same methods of secrecy, conspiracy and terrorism that the state’s underground a pparatus adopts. The dark and diabolical debasement of the “non-state” underground – whether of the left or the r eligious/ethnic variety – is alienating its once popular support base. It is not surprising that the first voices of protest against their terrorist acts arise from their own mothers and wives – as evident in Kashmir and Manipur.

The underground as an entity – whether run by the state or the “non-state actors” – is doomed to an existence of secret activities in isolation from the people. While the state-run underground is officially immunised from any public accountability, the members of the “non-state” underground are too preoccupied with their immediate need to protect themselves to pay heed to the humanitarian concerns of the c ommon people.

Looking back at the origins of the word “underground”, it is worthwhile recalling that it is associated with the 19th century plans of urbanisation in Europe with its vast network of sewers and subways and the labyrinth of tunnels underneath the cities that allowed the polite society to get rid of its wastes. Is the “underground” in India today a metaphor for an agency to serve a similar purpose of purging – a c atharsis for the divided Indian psyche?

The liberal part of it grudgingly supports the Indian State’s underground activities, while the radical part remains confused in an ambiguous state of sympathy and r evulsion towards the “non-state” underground. Meanwhile the underground in India is simmering. It reminds us of the warning sounded by a historian about the workers who manned the industrial u nderground of 19th century Europe: “the underground man hates still more – hates more than his own hateful self – the world above ground” (Irving Howe: The Decline of the New, 1970).

february 14, 2009 vol xliv no 7 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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