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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 30, July 16, 2011

Siddhartha Shankar Sibal

Wednesday 20 July 2011, by Mukul Dube


Recently I was invited to photograph a protest meeting organised at Jantar Mantar in Delhi by the AISA, the student wing of the CPI-ML (Liberation). Their comrades—including Sandeep Singh, now National President of the AISA and a former President of the JNU Students’ Union —had been beaten up, on June 24, 2011, by Congress toughs who rushed out of the Ranchi hotel in which Kapil Sibal was staying, on hearing the slogans of the AISA group. Sibal is said to have held a press conference to explain to the media the Congress stand on corruption. (Various reports)

The protesters were all young people, of course, and those who addressed them were not so old either. They spoke of the present and of the action they proposed in the immediate future. Two of us who were much older, an acquaintance of the same age and I, were overcome with a sense of having been taken back about four decades.

There was, at that time, a man named Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who was a Cabinet Minister at the Centre (1967-1972) when the first Mrs Gandhi was the Prime Minister, and after that was the Chief Minister of West Bengal (1972-1977).

Here is an extract from one obituary of Minister Ray. “During his tenure as CM, Ray earned a reputation for handling the Naxalite agitation effectively.” (Economic Times, November 7, 2010) What is here called an agitation was, four decades earlier, commonly described as an infestation. That is, political opponents were equated with scabies and rodents and perhaps Russell’s vipers. Nothing has changed in all this time: the same words are still used.

This extract from another obituary shows the same “political correctness”: “Ray had courted controversy for his tough handling of the Naxal movement in the early 70s.” (http://news.

It is a matter of record that Minister Ray was aided in his tough handling by a policeman named Ranjit Gupta; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the police were his main weapon against the Naxalites—and also, it was alleged, against the CPI-M. As it happens, when Minister Ray became Governor Ray, he came to be known as the “butcher of Punjab”. His supporting or cat’s paw policeman this time was one K.P.S. Gill.

Minister Ray’s “ruthlessness” was not manu-factured in Bengal: it came from the headquarters. “He was to later reminisce... that after the Bangladesh War Indira Gandhi had told him that ‘lawlessness had to be stamped out-of- Bengal’.” (

Minister Sibal too has backing from on high. No less a devotee of the late goddess than Minister Manmohan has “described the Maoist uprising as ‘the biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country’”. (

The key words are “lawlessness” and “internal security”. Challenges which are political in nature are declared criminal and are countered by forces meant to act against theft, drunkenness, embezzlement, dacoity and so on. It goes without saying that murder and rape committed by men in uniform, presumably in the course of duty, are never crimes.

Here is what I wrote in Mainstream weekly in May 2010: “The witch-hunt launched by Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s is echoed by our own P. Chidambaram when he has his Home Ministry issue a statement—or warning or declaration of intent—saying that those who speak up for the Maoists, or who express sympathy with them, will invite action under the Unlawful Activites (Prevention) Act...”.

That was a warning of a general nature. Minister Chidambaram later got down to brass tacks and instructed some or several or all States to take action against “Maoists” and those who can be so described when that is necessary or convenient. Thus we have Sudhir Dhawale, Dalit activist and editor of the Marathi periodical Vidrohi, arrested in January 2011. Thus we have Harbhinder Jalal, editor of the Punjabi periodical Chamkda Lal Tara, arrested in April or May 2011 in another corner of the country. Unlike Dhawale, he is not charged with sedition: instead, he allegedly has a revolver and ammunition planted on him and is said to have been tortured in custody. And of course we all know about Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh, a matter which may well be called the mother of all precedents.

Minister Sibal, who has been gathering portfolios much like some people collect dead butterflies, appears to believe that he has inherited Home Affairs too from his colleague, Minister Chidambaram. After the breaking up of Shri Ramdev’s “yoga camp” at the Ramlila Maidan, “Sibal said the police action should serve as a lesson to everybody”. (Various reports)

Minister Chidambaram has been lying low, perhaps directing the show and watching from the sidelines. It is Minister Sibal who has emerged as the Voice of Government.* He is the man who travels across the land issuing “explanations” and he is the schoolmarm who provides raps on the knuckles of the rowdy populace.

Like Minister Ray, Minister Sibal is a lawyer. Ray was the Education Minister when Sibal was rounding off the Delhi University spell of his education. I would not be surprised if there is a Role Model kind of thing at work here: in addition, of course, to the fact that the Indian State and the duties of its functionaries have changed little in well over half-a-century.

The website of the Lok Sabha says that Minister Sibal “[i]nvestigated cases of arbitrary detentions throughout the world; analysed detention and detention laws in the context of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant for Civil and Political Rights...”. ( =4077)

This sounds like lawyer’s work, not that of a politician: which suggests that Minister Sibal likes his bread to be buttered on both sides. Outside India he will be known as a champion of human rights; and within India, he will be the tough face of his party.

*“VoG” is certainly no more absurd than the “GoM”—a set of sub-cabinets within the Cabinet —with which we have been bombarded of late. A friend suggests that “VoC” and “VoS” are at least as apt.

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