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July 12, 2013

Another kind of terrorism

Seemingly ordinary crime committed in the fields of food and health security are indistinguishable from terrorism.

Terrorism is defined as the use of various kinds of violence to coerce a political outcome. Terrorists do not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Terrorist acts inflict heavy costs on the blameless. We in modern India are unfortunately quite familiar with terrorism – we easily recognise a Khalistani, jihadi or saffron terrorist when a bomb goes off and yet somehow we fail to see the terrorists that lurk in plain sight.

Perhaps it is simply our hubris as a nation, after all everyone knows we have made great strides after independence. Thanks to the “Green Revolution” and the Public Distribution System, we have achieved a significant degree of famine control. We have also made great advances in the pharmaceutical sector and life-saving drugs are mass-produced in India. But a walk down the street tells you all is not right. Malnutrition persists and no end to communicable diseases is in sight. Despite being among the ten richest nations on earth, we still have women and children who suffer from malnutrition and Indians still die from Tuberculosis, Typhoid and Malaria.

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In the midst of all this suffering, two groups of criminals seem to function with impunity. The first group of people who smuggle from the Public Distribution System and the second group of people compromise the national health system – peddling fake medicines, poor quality medical care and fraudulent medical advice to people that are ill. Some factions in these groups create entire criminal syndicates that reap the profits of such trade and then use the monies to fund political campaigns. In this fashion these criminal infiltrate the government machinery. A politician who comes to power via such alliances becomes uniquely placed to interfere in investigation of such crimes by the police and to subvert the law and order machinery.

The greatest impact of this criminal activity is felt by the weakest sections of the society– pregnant mothers, children, elderly people and people that are ill. The perpetrators of such crimes do not care about the consequences their actions visit upon the weakest of the weak. Absent the connection to politics, this is all ordinary crime but this same callous disregard for human life when attached to the pursuit of political gain makes the underlying acts indistinguishable from terrorism.

A politician who associates with PDS smugglers or fake medicine traffickers is no different from the leader of a terrorist organisation – as s/he deliberately invests in physically harming the weak to achieve political gains. There is no other word to describe someone who invests in violating human rights in such an informed fashion.

We do not seem to recognise this connection in India. Our laws continue to treat such matters as ordinary crime and not terrorism. Today the Government of India can take a PDS smuggler to court and a police detective can state under oath that the criminal before the court is a known PDS smuggler, but that does not capture predicate acts. The human impact of the criminal’s actions is hidden, and the court finds itself unable to clearly identify the elements of a conspiracy and that in turn leaves a large hole in our ability to properly prosecute criminals. To the victims of such crime, there is no justice. Their suffering is hidden behind the bland language of the court. Skilled lawyers are able to arrange the machinery of the courts to function in a manner that ensures no one is ever brought to account for the crimes.

This state of affairs is depressingly familiar in the context of separatism. All over India, we have witnessed several groups of people flirt with ethnic or religious chauvinism as a political philosophy and then suffer as it metastasizes into a full blown separatist insurgency. In the thick of the insurgency – all human rights become a distant memory and the court system cannot keep up with the activities of the criminals. It is only the clear definition of terrorism that allows for the formulation of appropriate laws like TADA and JKPSA among others. Only when the proper tools become available does the law enforcement machinery successfully combat the menace.

The first step to ending terrorism in the food and health security sphere is to recognise that it actually exists. Once that step is taken, then the next step would be to introduce specific amendments into the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 2008. The proposed amendments would make any contact between criminals who target food and health security and political personalities identical to the existing definition of an “unlawful association”. As the UAPA already lays heavy penalties on anyone who acts in material or moral support of an unlawful association – the identification proposed above should completely squeeze financial ties between politicians and such criminal syndicates. This in turn will gravely limit criminal subversion of government. Additionally an amendment to Sect 15, would seek to expand the definition of the words “terrorist act” to include any politically motivated disruptions to the access to essential commodities. After these changes take effect, suitable changes to the government machinery like appointing special tribunals and courts and special investigative teams will improve the targeting of such criminals. Also a fund could be setup to provide relief to the victims.

All in all, this appears to be a solvable problem. One needs only to bring a certain degree of focus to it.

Photo: Erich Fredinand


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