By Pradip Phanjoubam
Last week has been one of those in which editorial writers, or leader writers as they are called by the Americans, were overtaken and overwhelmed by a deluge of news breaking events of extreme import, which not only called for their attention but demanded editorial commentaries. Because journalists are presumed to be in the ringside seats of developing news events, they are expected by the readers to provide informed perspectives on these events, as is loudly evident in the popularity of chat programmes with them discussing the morning’s headlines on the All India Radio and various TV and cable channels every morning, not just in Manipur, but everywhere.
Many of which these news events may have appeared innocuous at the surface, nonetheless they carried deep and sinister implications deeper down. The busting of an edible oil adulteration racket in Imphal and the unfolding controversy over a Tweeter remark by the newly sworn in DoNER minister, Gen (retd), V.K. Singh, former Chief of Army Staff, are just two of these.
The foremost of the two is that of the DoNER minister’s unreservedly disparaging remarks about the new Chief of Army Staff designate, Lt.Gen. Dalbir Suhag. I have put this development on the top not because the unseemly controversy is unfolding in the New Delhi corridors of power, but because of its relevance to the Northeast, and in the current situation, Manipur in particular. Let me explain.
The DoNER minister, it now appears, while he was still the Chief of Army Staff, had tried to block the promotion of his junior, Lt. Gen. Dalbir Suhag, on the charge that the latter allowed the killing of innocents as well as dacoity by units under his command. What seems to have missed the notice of many is that the Army formation Lt. Gen. Suhag commanded when this objection was raised by Gen. Singh, is the 3 Corps.
The following are the exact words he tweeted when a Supreme Court ruling overturned his ban on promotion of Lt. Gen. Suhag very recently: “If unit kills innocents, does dacoity and then head of organization tries to protect them, should he not be blamed? Criminals should go free!!”
Journalists of the region who have been in the field for long, would all be cognisant of the fact that 3 Corps is headquartered in Rangapahar near Dimapur, and its area of command is Nagaland, Manipur, North Cachar Hills in Assam and parts of Tripura. We know Nagaland has been a ceasefire zone and therefore relatively spared of the brutal bush wars of insurgency and counter insurgency operations for the past decade and a half. Assam and Tripura are low-key insurgency areas currently. This leaves only Manipur as the hot conflict zone.
The debate in Delhi over the DoNER minister’s remarks centres around the understanding of public etiquette and propriety of a minister and former Army chief making a damaging remark about another General who would soon be leading one of the most powerful armies in the world. The opposition Congress has charged that the Supreme Court overruling the ban on Lt. Gen. Suhag by the DoNER minister amounts to a vote of confidence on the minister and that he should be made to resign.
My own feeling is, a ruling by a court of law is a matter of delivering procedural justice, which indeed was what was delivered in this case too. What the court of law is not mandated to read or factor into its judgments is the intangible moral contents of any story. Justice in this sense is defined by the principles of rule of law, and not by the quality of conscience of alleged crime perpetrators. The sublime beauty as well as the frustrating shortfalls of this attitude to adjudication could not have been better portrayed than in the 1954 play about Sir Thomas More by Robert Bolt, “A Man For All Seasons”, which was adapted for a successful 1966 film by the same name.
So while the DoNER minister’s accusations have only evoked debates that revolved around break of protocol, driven and moderated solely by familiar norms of the game of one-upmanship amongst rival political parties, what has missed public scrutiny is indeed the moral content of the entire affair. Understandably, the decibels are already dropping in the Delhi debate, for the issue is now cooled and therefore ceasing to be a handle in this game.
In the Northeast at least, and in particular Manipur, where there have been raging controversies over custodial killings, the nature of this debate ought to have been very different. Unfortunately, not many seem to have taken note of the gravity of the issue raised by the DoNER minister just as yet. Seemingly most missed noticing these underlying connections.
Let me therefore draw attention to the allegations again. Gen. Singh’s allegations against Lt. Gen Suhag, when read in the context of the sketch I have just done should translate as a clear vindication of the public allegations all the while that custodial killings have become a norm of the security forces operating in the region under the AFSPA. Should not the allegations amount to saying Gen. Suhag during his tenure as commander of the 3 Corps gave a free hand to custodial killings in Manipur and elsewhere? If this interpretation is agreed upon, what can be more sensational and earth shaking than this startling alert by a very unlikely whistle blower?
It is a wonder that those seeking justice in this murky murderous matter have not pounced into ring. I know for certain there are activists who have taken the government to court on this matter, and who have compiled long lists of unfortunate souls, mostly young men in their early 20s, who have either disappeared untraced after being picked up by the security forces, or else were found killed under mysterious circumstance in subsequent days. Their silence therefore is, to use a familiar cliché, deafening.
On Gen. Singh’s other damning remark that Gen. Suhag also permitted dacoity by units under his command, my guess is as good as anybody’s.
One thing is certain. Although many in the northeast have raised eyebrows at the appointment of a former Army Chief as the minister in charge of the Northeast by the newly installed BJP government at the centre, enthusiastically re-conjuring up the colonial image of the Northeast where Generals are appointed as Governors, this surprising controversy over a Tweeter remark does indicate this former Army General turned minister is a man with a conscience.
In direct contrast, the other news is of greasy, loathsome corruption of a businessman. Lest anybody is inclined to take the matter lightly, let me first remind the readers that food adulteration under a new Indian law which came into effect in 2011, is a crime punishable with life imprisonment together with fine up to Rs. 10 lakhs. The crime of food adulteration can also constitute even selling unhygienic and unwholesome foodstuff. In many countries, this crime can attract even the death penalty.
With this preface, let us take a look again at the food adulteration racket busted at a godown of a certain Ajay Traders at Khabam Lamkhai on June 9, the news of which made the headlines in the June 10 editions of all local morning dailies. From the newspaper accounts of the event, there can be no doubt whatsoever the crime was premeditated and therefore deliberate in the most selfish and sinister way.
The businessman in question, one Mulchand from Thangal Bazar, had been clandestinely carrying on with his despicable business, systematically contaminating mustard oil, by far the most popular cooking oil in the state, for illegal and criminal monetary gains. According to officials, his business operations also included, among others, mixing spoilt betel nuts with unspoiled ones and selling them to unsuspecting customers. The reports also indicated the business is worth crores of rupees, for even the goods seized on the day of the raid were estimated at Rs. 30 lakhs.
Our concern however is not the size of his business. He certainly is unscrupulous and insatiably greedy for unwarranted profit. But this he can account for to the income tax department and other revenue intelligence departments of the government. What we are however outraged by is that in the pursuit of his greed, he was for a long time also putting the health of numerous innocent consumers, men, women and children, at risk wilfully.
This atrocious practice, it is also clear from the accounts of the authorities to the media, had been going on unchecked for at least eight months. This being the case, and knowing the past ways of our law enforcement agencies, it is only reasonable that there were suspicions the man was buying his way past the notice of the authorities all the while, and that it was a glitch in the deal-making with his protectors which led to the raid. This being the suspicion, it should be in the interest of the authorities to start erasing this unsavoury reputation they have earned so far by dealing with this case firmly and transparently.
We also expect, and plead, the government not to sweep the matter under the carpet, or let anybody complicit in the crime off the hook without invoking appropriate law to award exemplary penalty to them, proportionate to the crime they have committed against the law and the people.
The government should immediately institute a high level inquiry into the matter to establish the nature as well the extent of the crime. It must come clear whether this food adulteration racket was a unique phenomenon at the behest of an incorrigibly corrupt man, or else just the tip of the iceberg as many have said is the possibility. It should also make the progress report of such an inquiry public. The manner in which it brings this case to a logical conclusion will be important not just towards the cause of justice and retribution, but also to remove another unfair and sweeping stereotypes that it is in the nature of the business community as a whole to be unscrupulous in their profiteering games.
I wonder if, just as the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU, and other associations and unions of professional groups are morally bound either to denounce or defend colleagues in their professions in such situations, guided by their own enlightened judgments and intimate understandings of these situations, as well as personal knowledge of the backgrounds of the persons under scrutiny, the Manipur Chamber of Commerce and other relevant bodies of the business community should also not issue statements of condemnation or solidarity with people from their vocation found on the wrong side of the law. This would go a long way in winning the confidence of the people by and large towards their vocational community.
We have many civil society organisations working in the area of government transparency using the RTI, so it is not unreasonable to expect they would ensure the government takes this case to its logical conclusion and the public informed of it.