The Thorny Fence

by த. கண்ணன்
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Thoothukudi. A polluting factory. Years of sporadic protest, culminating in a sustained 100-day mass protest, leading up to police firing on the last day. 15 people reported dead. Probably more. With the factory closed, for now, and with all the dead cremated and long gone, we may forget who the protestors were; forget whether they were social or anti-social, national or anti-national; forget what the protests were about; forget the right and wrong of it.  But I cannot yet forget the visuals capturing the sharpshooters in action on a van top. I wonder, did their minds waver? Did their nerves twitch? Did their hearts palpitate? Did their fingers tremble? Did a single thought cross their minds that their targets were people, full of life, not even foes they’ve been trained to hate, but their own people, fathers, mothers and daughters? Did any of them question the order to shoot?

Did anyone defy the orders, a la the British Indian soldiers of Garhwal Rifles, who refused to shoot at the non-violent protestors belonging to Kudai Kidmatgars (founded by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan) at Peshwar in 1930.  Many of them received prison sentences for disobeying the orders.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his book Slaughterhouse Five, a scathing attack on war and violence, refers to an incident of desertion from the US Army.

“Billy sat down in a waiting room. […] He sensed something hard under the cushion of his overstuffed chair. He dug it out, discovered that it was a book, The Execution of Private Slovik, by William Bradford Huie. It was a true account of the death before an American fixing squad of private Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, the only American soldier to be shot for cowardice since the Civil War. So it goes.

Billy read the opinion of a staff judge advocate who reviewed Slovik’s case, which ended like this: ‘He has directly challenged the authority of the government, and future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge. If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion, it should be imposed in this case, not as a punitive measure noras retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy. There was no recommendation for clemency in the case and none is here recommended. So it goes.”

Eddie Slovik was a former smalltime criminal, who had to separate from his newly married wife to join the army during World War II.  Eddie‘carried a rifle but no ammunition. He was assigned to a platoon but walked away. Refusing to fight, Slovik was arrested, court-martialled, and condemned to death.’

Leo Tolstoy in the essay, ‘What’s to be Done?’, writes,“I cannot but think that if all men, forgetting their various positions as ministers, policemen, presidents and members of various combative or non-combative parties, would only do the deeds natural to each of them as a human being—not only would those horrors and sufferings cease, of which the life of man (especially the life of Russian people) is now full, but the Kingdom of God would have come upon earth.”

At Thoothukudi, there was no visible sign of any such defiance of unfair orders and bowing down to the higher call of humanity. The whole shooting seemed to have been executed with a cold blooded professional efficiency, the sort that we see on movies with seasoned actors.

The same was the case with the final day assault on jallikattu protestors. We saw videos showing police stations and vans being torched by the police. We saw protestors driven towards the sea. We heard of the revenge on fishermen who came to the rescue. On live TV, we watched a girl’s face being battered by lathi charge on the streets of Alanganallur, when she tried to give cover to a male protestor. Yes, it is more complicated. Yes, there are good police officers. Yes, the protestors hands are not always clean. Yes, there may be infiltration by the so-called anti-social elements into the protests. But none of that can explain the violence unleashed by the police on the people who they are sworn to protect. The uninhibited violence always gives room to speculations that the infiltration is orchestrated.

Men with arms and uniforms of all hues have at various points indulged in atrocious acts of violence across the country, and across the world. “Once the whistles are blown and the order given to disperse the crowd, you can only expect brutality from the police personnel towards protesters, be they students, members of North East tribal organisations, ex-servicemen, Maruti Suzuki workers, or Aam Aadmi Party activists. The differences, if any, are of degree and not of kind,” writes Thangkhanlal Ngaihte in the Economic and Political Weekly in an essay, rather gloomily titled, ‘The Futility of Fighting the Police’.

What differentiates the acts of the men in uniform from the acts of violence of other men is the near-absolute impunity that they enjoy. Let alone fatal violence, who else can stop people in the middle of the road and extort money from them as bribes on the flimsiest pretexts, in the full glare of public? A young student of Chennai, Muhammad Haroon Sait, landed up in hospital with severe injuries for refusing to bribe a policeman. (Due to social media outrage, the concerned police officer was reported to have been immediately placed under suspension.)

The extortion done wielding the sceptre

Is same as robbery with a spear.

(வேலொடு நின்றா னிடுவென் றதுபோலும்

கோலோடு நின்றா னிரவு.)

This Thirukkural (also interpreted to mean unfair taxation) is a most damning indictment of the transgressions of those in power, and in its most literal sense, is embodied by the policeman on the road, emerging from the shadow to stop a vehicle.

How many such accusations have we heard against the armed men, and how many convictions have we seen? Maybe, a transfer here or a temporary suspension there, hardly anything more. However, any move to challenge their authority is crushed without compunction.

A few years ago, a few young professionals working at a software company, founded by my sister and brother-in-law, protested at the premises of the regional Corporation office against their lackadaisical response to their repeated complaints about drainage water stagnating on the road in front of their office. They had carried with them samples of the drainage water. Police dispersed all the female members and took the 16 male members to the police station. What should have been an amicable resolution of a long standing civic issue, turned out to be a longer ordeal for them. The reason: the young professionals did not show the required reverence to the police officers. They were speaking to the police officers in a friendly manner, even joking with them. They were booked under non-bailable sections. It was Friday. Late in the evening, they were taken to a magistrate at her house. She possibly sensed that the charges were flimsy and fabricated, was reluctant to put them under detention, and twice, gave time to the police, asking them to reconsider. They were not regular offenders but only raised their voice on a single issue. The officers refused.

Two of their comments made to us stays with me to this day. One was about my sister, “She is too headstrong. Anybody else would have been in tears. If she keeps applying such pressure I’ll file another case under Prevention of Atrocities act. I have taken a complaint from the SC workers at the Corporation. I can make her husband spend a long time in jail.”

The other was even more telling: “How dare that boy told me, ‘Do not make comedy, sir’”  (A common phrase originating from Tamil movies, often used by youngsters, காமெடி பண்ணாதீங்க, சார்.)

Authority brooks not the slightest signs of defianceand humor. They learnt the lesson the hard way. All 16 of them ended up in jail for the long weekend. Bail was granted on Monday evening and they were released on Tuesday. It took another 2.5 years before the court quashed the charges against them.


One of the defining moments of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia had nothing to do with soccer. During the finals, a few spectators wearing police dress stormed into the ground. The television cameras quickly moved away from them as the real police dragged them away. What seemed to be an unruly interruption in the game, was perhaps more important than the game itself. The interruptors were members of Pussy Riot who have been highlighting police excesses in Putin’s Russia. Their protests coincided with the death anniversary of the poet Dmitri Prigov, ‘who at one point was incarcerated in a Soviet psychiatric hospital as punishment for his work’. Dmitri Prigov had written poems contrasting a heavenly policemen and the earthy policeman.

The report released by Pussy Riot on social media paraphrased Dmitri Prigov:

“The heavenly policeman is the organizer of this World Cup’s beautiful carnival, the earthy policeman is afraid of the celebration.

The heavenly policeman carefully watches for obeying the game rules, the earthly policeman enters the game not caring about the rules.

The FIFA World Cup has reminded us of the possibilities of the heavenly policeman in the Great Russia of the future, but the earthly policeman, entering the ruleless game breaks our world apart.

When the earthly policeman enters the game, we demand to:

  1. Let all political prisoners free.
  2. Not imprison for “likes”.
  3. Stop Illegal arrests on rallies.
  4. Allow political competition in the country.
  5. Not fabricate criminal accusations and not keep people in jails for no reason.
  6. Turn the earthly policeman into the heavenly policeman. “

Their demands have a universal applicability.

The ubiquity of the policeman is recounted by Dmitri Prigov in another of his poems (translated from Russian by Matvei Yankelevich):

When the p’liceman stands here at his post


When the p’liceman stands here at his post

Expanses all the way to Vnukovo unfurl before him

The P’liceman gazes to the West and to the East

And emptiness unfurls behind them

And the center, which the P’liceman holds:

A view of him unfurls from ev’rywhere

From ev’rywhere the Policeman can be seen

From the East is seen the Policeman

And from the sea the Policeman can be seen

And from the sky is seen the Policeman

And from beneath the very earth…

Anyway, he isn’t hiding

The ubiquitous policeman is everywhere.

He is there to accompany land surveyors out to mark out land to be grabbed for laying a 8-lane highway from Salem to the outskirts of Chennai, much against the wishes of the locals, and to arrest whoever refuses entry or so much as raises a voice.

He is there to accompany cows to their shelter in Rajasthan, while a man lynched by the crowds is left to die.

Elsewhere, in Myanmar, he inserts confidential documents into the hands of two young reporters of Reuters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who had written about the massacre of 10 Rohingya men by villagers and Myanmar troops. And he arrests them for possessing confidential documents. The reporters are languishing in jail since December 2017.

In USA, in the hallowed turf of democracy, he shoots dead close to 1000 people every year.

When, in 2012, I had interviewed the late Gandhian leader, Narayan Desai, he narrated his experiences in trying to bring peace to the North Eastern states. It erased the partition in my mind, that separated policing and warfare.

“One of the things that was very shocking and sad for me was, well, this whole area, their language had no word for rape. There was no concept of rape. There was elopement. And that may be done; and, that was dignified. There was no word for rape. This is what has happened, because of our army.

I said that to Jawaharlal Nehru. Panditji said, ‘Narayan, do you know a word called war-babies?’. I said, ‘Panditji, I am talking about my own country. Between North-east India and the rest of India’. So he immediately stopped. Are they war-babies?  If they are war-babies, it is allowed – Is that what he meant? Even then, I would not accept.

Then he immediately took action. Some of the officers were changed.”

Why? Why? Why? I am besieged by more and more questions. What makes the policeman and the soldier become such purveyors of violence and death, much against the very objectives of their existence? Is it brutal conditioning? Is it the comfort and confidence of carrying arms? Do they truly believe what they are doing is the right thing? Are they just too good at suppressing their dissenting hearts? Do their consciences prick them later?


Writers have tried to fathom what goes on inside the mind of a soldier.

The chocolate cream soldier (who says, “I’ve no ammunition. What use are cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead”) in Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, has no kind words for his fellow soldiers:

“Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak.”

In War and Peace, Tolstoy writes,

“One step beyond that line, reminiscent of the line separating the living from the dead, and it’s the unknown, suffering, and death. And what is there? who is there? there, beyond this field, and the tree, and the roof lit by the sun? No one knows, and you would like to know; and you’re afraid to cross that line, and would like to cross it; and you know that sooner or later you will have to cross it and find out what is there on the other side of the line, as you will inevitably find out what is there on the other side of death. And you’re strong, healthy, cheerful, and excited, and surrounded by people just as strong and excitedly animated.” So, if he does not think it, every man feels who finds himself within sight of an enemy, and this feeling gives a particular brilliance and joyful sharpness of impression to everything that happens in those moments.

Does the armed man really think about what it is like to be on the other side of the line? The Belarusian writer, Svetlana Alexievich, in her book, Zinky Boys, explores the feelings and the stories of Soviet soldiers sent to fight in the Afghan war.

One of the soldiers in her book, talks about crossing that line.

“I never answered your first question: how did I come to be in Afghanistan? I volunteered to ‘go to the aid of the Afghan people’. Radio, TV and the press kept telling us about the Revolution, and that it was our duty to help. I got myself ready for war by learning karate – it’s not easy, the first time you hit someone in the face, and hear the bone crunch. You have to step over a certain boundary inside yourself – then smash!”

Another soldier talks about the military training and drill: ‘Now hear this! Repeat after me! What is a para? Answer: a bloody-minded brute with an iron fist and no conscience! ‘Repeat after me: conscience is a luxury we can’t afford! Conscience is a luxury we can’t afford!’

Does this ruthless conditioning truly make them believe in the justness of their actions?

“Well, I admit it. I had the greatest respect for the Afghan people, even while I was shooting and killing them. I still do. You could even say I love them. I like their songs and prayers, as peaceful and timeless as their mountains. But the fact is that I, personally, truly believed that their nomadic tents, their yurts, were inferior to our five-storey blocks of flats, and that there was no true culture without a flush toilet.”

The policeman throwing out farmers from their lands, or tribals from their forests, does he also feel that he is delivering them true development?

Yet another soldier narrates a brutal experience and the subsequent transformation that came much later:

“One day two of our lads went to a shop, shot the shopkeeper and his family and stole everything they could lay their hands on. There was an enquiry and of course everyone denied having anything to do with it. They examined the bullets in the bodies and eventually charged three men: an officer, an NCO and a private. But when our barracks were being searched for the stolen money, etc, I remember how humiliated and insulted we felt -why all this fuss about a few dead Afghans? There was a court martial and the NCO and the private were sentenced to the firing squad. We were all on their side – the general opinion was that they were being executed for their stupidity rather than for what they’d done. The shopkeeper’s dead family didn’t exist for us. We were only doing our international duty. It was all quite cut and dried. It’s only now, as the stereotypes begin to collapse, that I see things differently. And to think, I used not to be able to read ‘Mumu’ [a sentimental story by Turgenev about the relationship between a dumb peasant and his dog] without crying my eyes out!”

Many of them were shattered by the experience. “I was so shocked by the injuries, by the bullets, by the realisation that such weapons had actually been invented. The entry wound would be small but the intestines, liver and spleen a terrible twisted mess. Apparently it wasn’t enough to kill or wound, there had to be torture, too. ‘Mum!’ they screamed, ‘Mum!’ when they were frightened and in pain. Always, always for their mothers.”

Along with this soldier, we too have to ask the question, why do such weapons of torture have to be even conceived and produced?

George Orwell answers in 1984.

“The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare,” and, “The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

“Who will guard the guards themselves?” is a question that has been asked from the times of Socrates and Plato.

We do have a number of good men in the police forces and the armed forces. But that has only been a marginal redeeming factor.

The more I ponder over this, the closer I come to the conclusion that the problem is not with the action of police in specific instances. The idea of policing itself needs re-imagination.

Tolstoy, re-imagines through the protagonist of his novel, Resurrection:

“It became clear to him that all the dreadful evil he had been witnessing in prisons and jails and the quiet self-satisfaction of the perpetrators of this evil were the consequences of men trying to do what was impossible; trying to correct evil while being evil themselves; vicious men were trying to correct other vicious men, and thought they could do it by using mechanical means, and the only consequence of all this was that the needs and the cupidity of some men induced them to take up this so-called punishment and correction as a profession, and have themselves become utterly corrupt, and go on unceasingly depraving those whom they torment. Now he saw clearly what all the terrors he had seen came from, and what ought to be done to put a stop to them. The answer he could not find was the same that Christ gave to Peter. It was that we should forgive always an infinite number of times because there are no men who have not sinned themselves, and therefore none can punish or correct others.

“But surely it cannot be so simple,” thought Nekhludoff, and yet he saw with certainty, strange as it had seemed at first, that it was not only a theoretical but also a practical solution of the question. The usual objection, “What is one to do with the evil doers? Surely not let them go unpunished?” no longer confused him. This objection might have a meaning if it were proved that punishment lessened crime, or improved the criminal, but when the contrary was proved, and it was evident that it was not in people’s power to correct each other, the only reasonable thing to do is to leave off doing the things which are not only useless, but harmful, immoral and cruel.”


Gandhi stopped short of calling for the dismantling of the army and the police force. But he did envision a future without violent enforcement. He wrote in Harijan (1940),

“Nevertheless, I have conceded that even in a non-violent State a police force may be necessary.This, I admit, is a sign of my imperfect Ahimsa. I have not the courage to declare that we can carry on without police force as I have in respect of any army. Of course, I can and do envisage a State where the police will not be necessary. But whether we shall succeed in realizing it, the futurealone will show.

The police of my conception will, however, be of a wholly different pattern from the present-day force. Its ranks will be composed of believers in non-violence. They will be servants, not masters of the people. The people will instinctively render them any help, and through mutual co-operation they will easily deal with the ever-decreasing disturbances. The police force will have some kind of arms, but they will be rarely used, if at all. In fact the police men will be reformers. Their police work will be confined primarily to robbers and dacoits.”

But Gandhi believed, “Democracy can only be saved through non-violence, because democracy, so long as it is sustained by violence, cannot provide for to protect the weak. My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. This can never happen except through non-violence…Western democracy, as it functions today, is diluted Nazism or Fascism.”

Gandhi also did moot the idea of Shanti Sena, a peace army, to deal with both internal and external disturbances. As early as 1921, he sowed the seeds of Shanti Sena with a corp of volunteers who would help maintain peace in riot hit areas. Later the idea kept growing in his mind. He formulated the pre-conditions for being a Shanti Dal member.  He could imagine repulsing the Japanese attack with non-violent cooperation and an army of peace workers. During the partition riots, Shanti Sena took further shape in Calcutta. Many young men and women dared to go into riot hit areas, and quell the violence. People like Sachin Mitra and Smritish Banerji died during their efforts.

“Sometime ago I had suggested the idea of Shanti Sena whose members would risk their lives for preventing riots, particularly communal riots. The idea was that this Sena will work in lieu of the police or the army. This seems to be a very great ambition. It may even seem to be impossible of achievement. But if the Congress desires to succeed in its non violent movement        itwill have to demonstrate the power to tackle such situations in a non violent manner.”

Shanti Sena was revived by Vinoba Bhave in 1957, and taken forward by Jayaprakash Narayan and Narayan Desai. They did some significant work in the Northeastern states. JP even floated the idea of meeting the Chinese army with his Shanti Sena. Later, with the split in the Sarvodaya movement, and the withering away of the Gandhian spirit, Shanti Sena did not progress much.

However, it may be an idea whose time is yet to come.


Three years ago, when we bought our farm, one of the first decisions we had to make was whether to build a fence. Our farm is surrounded by a stream on 3 sides, and shares a boundary with another farm only on one side.  Putting up a fence meant that we will cut ourselves off from the open areas leading down to the stream. A fence on one side was no fence at all, while still being quite expensive. We also realized that no fence could keep out those who wanted to break in. And rains and soil erosion enforce frequent maintenance of the fence. We chose to place our trust in the local people and decided not to have a fence. We don’t stay on the farm, and we are often away from the village. So, yes, there have been a few minor thefts and a few incursions of humans and cattle into the farm. But what we may have lost is a minuscule proportion of the total cost of owning a fence. We are happy to live in peace without that fence.