Iraq and the failure of democracy

THERE is no decision in foreign policy more serious than recourse to war. As the Bush administration prods the country toward an unpopular and illegal war with Iraq, it is a matter of national urgency to question whether our constitutional system of government is providing adequate protection to the American people against the scourge of war. Given the turbulence of the current world scene and considering America’s military primacy on the global stage, what the United States does affects the well-being, and possibly the survival, of others throughout the world. So we must question whether our system of representative democracy is currently working in relation to this momentous question of war or peace.

Without doubt the events of September 11 were a test of the viability of our institutions under a form of stress never before experienced – the menace of a mega-terrorist enemy lurking in the concealed recesses of dozens of countries, including possibly our own. To respond effectively without losing our democratic identity in the process required wise and sensitive leadership. It required as well a display of political and moral imagination to devise a strategy capable of dealing effectively with mega-terrorism while remaining ethical and in keeping with our values as a nation. At this point, on the brink of a war against Iraq, a country that has not been persuasively linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11, it is impossible to conclude that our government is meeting this unprecedented challenge. Indeed, the Bush administration appears likely to intensify the danger while further widening the orbit of death and destruction.

The American system of constitutional government depends on a system of checks and balances. Such checks and balances among the three main branches of government is a fundamental principle, and never more so than in relation to war and peace. At the very least, Congress has the responsibility of restraining a rush to war by engaging in serious public debate. To date Congress has only held low profile hearings some months back. No opponents of the approach taken by the Bush administration were invited to participate in the hearings, which almost exclusively analyzed the costs and benefits of the war option as applied to Iraq. There was no consideration of alternatives to war, no reflections on the dubious legality of the preemptive war doctrine, no discussion of the absence of urgency and necessity that undermined the argument that there was no time to waste in achieving ‘disarmament’ and ‘regime change’ in Iraq. Congress has so far failed in its constitutional responsibilities.

In passing the USA Patriot Act shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress seriously eroded traditional American guarantees of freedom and privacy found in the Bill of Rights. The Act allows the government to conduct secret searches, provides for FBI access to extensive personal and financial records of individuals without court order or even probable cause of a crime, and creates a new, broad definition of ‘domestic terrorism’ that could subject individuals who engage in public protest to wiretapping and enhanced penalties.

The open-ended resolution of Congress authorizing the president to resort to force only accentuates its failure to uphold these responsibilities. It would seem that the patriotic mood that followed the terrorist attacks, along with shortsighted anxieties about challenging a popular president, has dulled the critical faculties of Congress as a whole despite the willingness of a small number of senators and congressmen to raise their voices in opposition. As a republic, the US government cannot function properly if Congress fails to exercise its constitutional responsibilities in relation to the ultimate issues of war and peace, and simply gives spineless deference to the president.

Closely connected with this institutional breakdown, is the lamentable behaviour of the Democratic Party, particularly its leadership. They have failed in the role of an opposition party to raise issues of principle, especially when so much is at stake. The passivity of the Democratic Party in these circumstances can only be explained by its ill-considered opportunism with regard to domestic politics, including an inappropriate pretension of patriotism. Given the importance of the party system, our governing procedures cannot protect the citizenry against unacceptable policies if the opposition party becomes mute and hides in the face of anticipated controversy.

These issues have been compounded by a compliant mainstream media, especially the corporate-owned news networks. The media has largely viewed its role in terms of promoting patriotic obedience to the government and mobilizing the country for war against Iraq rather than illuminating the debate about whether such a war is justified and necessary. The media has focused its attention on when the war will begin, how it will be fought, and what kind of occupation policy and exit strategy will be attempted. It has refrained from considering the question of why the US should or should not engage in war or from examining the many serious possible consequences to the Middle East and to the US itself of engaging in this war.

There are numerous qualified critics among the American citizenry, as well as overseas, and yet their voices are virtually never heard in the mainstream media. The media tends to orient its analysis around compliant ‘military analysts’ and conservative think tank policy wonks. Even when prominent military figures, such as General Norman Schwartzkopf or General Anthony Zinni, express doubts about the rush to war, their objections are given virtually no attention. This spectacle of a self-indoctrinated and self-censored media weakens our democratic fabric, depriving the citizenry of information and perspectives that are needed to reach intelligent conclusions as to support or opposition.

Most important of all, the Bush administration seems to be moving toward a non-defensive war against Iraq without providing a coherent account to the American public. It has presented evidence to the UN Security Council suggesting that Iraq retains unreported stocks of biological and chemical weaponry, but has provided no convincing proof of this and certainly no rationale on this basis for war. The American people need to realize that there are at least twenty countries with greater capabilities than Iraq with respect to such weaponry. A number of these countries are far more likely to be a conduit for such weaponry to pass into the hands of al Qaeda or other terrorist operatives, which is the greatest danger.

It is also important for the American people to understand that in the course of an American attack on Iraq, its leadership would only then have an incentive, in their helplessness, to turn such weaponry as they possess over to al Qaeda or to use it against American troops. Without such an incentive, Iraq is likely to remain the most deterred country on the planet, fully aware that any provocative step involving deployment or threats of weapons of mass destruction would bring about the instant annihilation of the Baghdad regime and Iraq as an independent country.

Under these circumstances, we must wonder why the Bush administration, with pro forma Congressional support, is plunging ahead with a war that seems so contrary to reason. There are two lines of explanation, both raising disturbing questions about the legitimacy of governance under the leadership of the Bush administration. The first explanation is that the shock impact of September 11 has upset the rationality of the policy process to such an extent that an unwarranted war is being undertaken.

Part of this explanation is the frustration experienced by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the Afghanistan War. Not knowing what to do next has led the administration irrationally to treat Saddam Hussein as if he were Osama Bin Laden and to treat Iraq as if it were al Qaeda. Such irrationality overlooks the radical difference between responding to a terrorist network that cannot be deterred and dealing with a hostile and unpalatable minor state. War is neither needed nor acceptable in the latter case.

The second line of explanation, the more likely in our judgment, is that the American people and the other governments of the world are not being told the main reasons behind the US war policy. From this perspective, the alleged preoccupation with Iraqi weaponry of mass destruction is largely diversionary, as is the emphasis on Saddam’s brutality. The real reasons for the war are oil and regional strategic control, a military beachhead in relation to the volatile Middle East.

Such justifications for war make strategic sense if, and only if, America is pursuing global dominance to ensure that its current economic and military preeminence is sustained into the future. But it is undoubtedly impolitic for the Bush administration to reveal such motives for war. The American people are overwhelmingly unwilling to spill blood for oil or empire. And most of the international community would certainly oppose the war if Washington’s strategic goals were made explicit.

The suspicion that the underlying reasons for war are not being disclosed is not based on adherence to a conspiracy theory of government. If we examine closely the worldview expressed years before September 11 by the Pentagon hawks and Vice President Cheney, this understanding of American goals in the world becomes more transparent. What September 11 did was to provide an anti-terrorist banner under which these grandiose schemes could be realized without public acknowledgement. Again, this is not a paranoid fantasy. President Bush explicitly endorsed this vision of America’s world role in his West Point commencement address last June, and more subtly, in the major document issued by the White House in September 2002 under the title ‘The National Security Strategy of the United States of America’.

We are left then with two related problems. The first is that of concealment from the American people, and the second is the substantive issue of whether the United States should initiate a war to promote this grand design of American power and empire. It seems reasonable to assume that the motives for concealment are connected with the administration’s assessment of the political unacceptability of their undisclosed motives for war. This double image of our democratic crisis is particularly troublesome in the face of the breakdown of our constitutional reliance on checks and balances.

But all is not lost. There are many indications that opposition to the war is growing at the grassroots level in America, and has been robust all along among the peoples of the world. In the United States, polling information shows that more than 70 per cent of the people do not support a unilateral preemptive war led by the United States. More than 70 city councils across the country have registered their opposition to a war against Iraq, and the number continues to grow. Recently over 40 American Nobel Laureates went on record opposing a US preventive war against Iraq. More and more Americans are taking to the streets in opposition to the Bush administration’s plans for aggressive warfare.

These numbers can be expected to grow and the voices of protesters become angrier as the administration moves ever closer to war. It seems doubtful that this resistance at the level of the citizenry can operate as a check in the short run on White House zeal, but perhaps it can both strengthen the resolve of Congress and the Democratic Party, and convey the wider message that we need to recover trust in government if our constitutional system is to uphold our security and our values as a democratic republic. Already in the US Senate, Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd have introduced a resolution (S. Res. 32) calling on the president to provide full support to the UN weapons inspectors to facilitate their ongoing disarmament work and obtain a new resolution of approval by Congress before using military force against Iraq without the broad support of the international community.

The stakes are extremely high. It is not only the prospect of war against Iraq, but it is the whole relationship of the United States to the world. Continuing down the path along which the Bush administration is leading is likely to produce a climate of perpetual fear and war. It is also likely to undermine further our security and our freedoms at home, even moving us in the direction of a police state. Already, American consulates around the world are warning Americans of the heightened dangers that they are likely to face in reaction to the Iraq War.

At home, the colour-coded alert system created by the Department of Homeland Security seems designed to keep Americans in a state of fear without providing them with any positive steps they can take to increase their security. With each passing week the government moves ahead with its claims to exercise sweeping powers that erode our civil liberties while arousing our fears that terrorists are poised to strike at the American heartland. We do not need to have such a future, but it will be difficult to avoid unless the American people exercise their democratic prerogatives and rise in defence of their civil liberties, as well as in support of peace, international law and constitutional government.

Richard Falk and David Krieger


* Richard Falk, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. David Krieger is a founder and president of the Foundation ( They are the co-editors of a recent Foundation Briefing Booklet, The Iraq Crisis and International Law.



Adivasi people’s movements

ONE of the most significant moments at the Asia Social Forum (January 2-7) was the coming together of the frontline indigenous/adivasi people’s groups from many states in India on a common platform. More importantly, this show could well be the foundation of a nationwide, collective and converged adivasi movement to secure, essentially, their rights to livelihood. Concerted efforts are underway to further this process, with a proposed follow-up meeting of these and other new adivasi groups in March/April this year to discuss the current adivasi situation in various states and for further action.

The adivasi people across Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Kerala and Tamilnadu adopted a historic, poignantly political declaration at the ASF. The eight point declaration, adopted on 6 January aims to be a call for the adivasi people who are yet to enter this collective movement, an assertion of sovereignty in the immediacy of resource control in the forests and pasturelands – the lifeline of the adivasi people – by the state and other agencies extraneous to the adivasi contexts.

The declaration reads thus:

1. We the adivasi people have a natural, non-negotiable right over the resources including land, water, forests and minerals.

2. We reject the commodification of natural resources in the name of liberalisation and globalisation.

3. We reject the current practices of grabbing people’s resources in the name of development under the cover of eminent domain principle, resulting in displacement, disorganisation and destitution of the adivasi people.

4. We oppose the promotion of eco-tourism and entertainment industries in adivasi areas.

5. All areas inhabited by the adivasis should be declared as scheduled areas.

6. We uphold and fight to protect the linguistic and cultural identities of the adivasi people.

7. We call upon all communities particularly the adivasi people to reject, resist and fight back all attempts and claims over land, water, forests, biological resources and minerals by the state and the corporate sector under the banner of globalisation. The right of the community is absolute.

8. We call upon all adivasi people to assert their right to self-rule.

Adivasi movements/groups/collectives present at the ASF included, among others, the National Front for Tribal Self Rule, National Forest Workers and Forest People’s Forum, All India Tribal Joint Action Committee, Prakrutik Sampada Suraksha Parishad (Orissa), Jana Sangharsh Morcha, Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh), Tudumdebba, Adivasi Aikya Vedika, Girijana Students Union, Adivasula Hakkula Porata Samiti (the last four from Andhra Pradesh).

Interestingly, the reasons for the lack of representation of adivasi groups from the state of Uttaranchal, home to many indigenous communities, are not forthcoming. One reason – which might be debatable – could be the role of numerous NGOs in promoting the World Bank supported Joint Forest Management (now Community Forest Management) programmes in many villages in Uttaranchal. Although this is true of other states as well, there is in states such as AP, MP and Orissa, a strong opposition, even resistance to the JFM and CFM programmes which, people feel, have shrunk the livelihood spaces of adivasis.

Moreover, there is still a lack (or visibility) of leadership from among the adivasis in Uttaranchal in movements against the several proposed ‘development’ plans for the state, including dams and mining projects, which seem to have been taken up by few NGOs and groups alone at a peripheral level. This may be one reason for not mentioning the current status of these developmental projects and their possible impacts on the adivasis of the Uttaranchal region at the ASF.

This phenomenon requires further analysis and as such is beyond the scope of the present note. Meanwhile, the eight point declaration, and the convergence of all adivasi groups at the ASF, was a result of processes both within and outside of the adivasi context. The increasing consciousness about political and resource-centred rights among certain adivasi groups has been one of the processes ‘within’.

Most visibly working towards such a process have been the adivasi groups in Andhra Pradesh (a state known for a longer, sustained adivasi struggle against state forces – the British and the Nizams – concerning land alienation), Orissa (where again the adivasi struggle predates the neo-liberalisation and globalisation process), Madhya Pradesh (and Chattisgarh, which stands to lose out most as the fledgling state government rushes for corporate investments in mining and other resource plundering activities) and Kerala (with C.K. Janu’s landmark struggle to secure land rights for the adivasis).

The processes ‘without’ have been the policies dictated by the state in the name of development of adivasi areas, the main emphasis being revenue and commercial exploitation of resources. In most cases, the state has merely patronised the adivasis, treating them as ‘beneficiaries’ rather than as citizens with rights. It is no overstatement that democracy today does not provide the adivasis anything more than a token presence in polity and governance.

In states such as Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, the state governments have welcomed both Indian and transnational corporate sectors in investments that threaten to usurp the natural (or historical) rights of the adivasis over their resources, not to mention the effect on traditional, ecologically regenerative agricultural and other community practices. The pro-industry, non-transparent, non-representational policies of the state have been, in their own way, instrumental in building a strong opposition among the adivasi peoples.

By far the most crucial area of contestation between adivasis and the state has been the ownership and use of forest resources and land. This has also been a point of consensus among adivasi groups from several states. In 1988-89, the report of the Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes examined the issue of land. Based on his recommendations, the Secretary’s Committee, in consultation with the state governments, made further recommendations, which were accepted by the Government of India. Subsequently, a set of six circulars were issued on 18/8/90 to various state governments.

A distinction was made between ‘unsettled (land) claims’ or ‘disputed land’ and ‘encroachments’. The GOI circular of 18/8/90 for the first time acknowledged that a number of disputed (land) claims of adivasis were pending, and these had to be regularised so as to distinguish them from ‘encroachments’. In the former case, while it was admitted that tribal people have a right to occupy these lands, in the latter case, the state government was given ‘discretionary’ powers to disallow settlement of land. The six circulars dealt with ‘encroachments’, ‘disputed claims’, distinction between ‘cultivated’ and ‘homestead’ lands, converting forest villages into revenue villages, among other things.

Although some believed that making a distinction between ‘encroachments’ and ‘disputed claims’ could be beneficial to the adivasis in matters of land ownership, these categories of defining the adivasi people’s (specifically, and forest users, in general) nature of ownership over natural resources, nevertheless, are impositions arising out of the state’s perceptions of its ownership of resources, especially since these have never been claimed under ‘private’ ownership terms (itself a modern middle class, urban concept) by the people using them in forested tracts in India. Moreover, many villages in India bordering the forest land have traditionally used common land for matters of grazing and gathering fuel wood. With these distinctions, the intrinsic relationship between people and the forests also stands to be questioned.

However, even in case of regularising the lands as per the circular, many discrepancies have been noted. For instance, the departmental authorities are supposed to go by the records of possession of land and its duration of possession, based on ‘evidence’, and a Preliminary Offence Report (POR) in case of encroachments. In many cases, the adivasi people are unable to provide any evidence of possession. In some cases, as in the Orange Lands (Protected Areas) in MP, where the state government decided to transfer forest department land to the revenue department, the pattas were issued to the people prior to the transfer. There are instances, in such cases, where the records of one department have not been accepted by another.

In Maharashtra, the formal status of ‘dali’ lands, leased out to the entire village for common use, is not known. It is possible for the government to revoke such a lease as and when it pleases.

A representative from Kashipur in Orissa (from the Prakrutik Sampada Suraksha Parishad) narrated the paradox of local self-governance, panchayati raj institutions being promoted without the actual power to affect change in policy. The Bhakra bauxite mining project was sanctioned despite the veto by the gram sabhas of eight panchayats. On the other hand is the question as to how sensitive the gram panchayat institutions themselves are to the effects of the state’s development focus.

Meanwhile, the National Front for Tribal Self Rule – a collective of several groups working with the adivasi issues – formed in 1998, has been demanding extension of the 73rd amendment to the scheduled areas, which would protect and represent adivasi interests.

Even prior to the ASF, at different local levels there has been discussion on bringing about a common understanding about ‘non-negotiables’, on self rule, as well as on the idea of encroachments. In 1994, in AP, there was local resistance to the JFM; besides the conflict between dalits and adivasis over notification of the Valmiki community as a scheduled tribe. In north coastal AP, this community comes under the SC category, and the notification led a number of them to migrate into ‘Agency’ tracts, thus creating a conflict between the communities over sparse resources.

Similarly, in MP, the state government has been giving land in the adivasi areas to dalits, which could become a contentious issue. The Adivasi Mukti Sangathan has been debating this issue and about its inclusion in the 5th Schedule in order to protect adivasi lands.

The larger context is the politics of external (First World) aid with various state governments and the Ministry of Environment and Forests entering into bilateral and multilateral collaborations in forestry and natural resource management – an issue discussed at length by activists, NGO groups and the adivasis at one of the seminars at the ASF. A representative of the National Front for Tribal Self Rule addressed the current debate on carbon dollar – of the First World (mainly, America) virtually exchanging its contribution to global warming by way of investing in forests of the Third World to be utilised as carbon sinks.

The ASF meet marks an effort to unite the different state level movements of adivasis. While there were/are area specific issues, there are also certain issues which call for a concerted, common action plan from adivasi groups. One of these includes the circular issued on a time bound action plan for ‘Eviction of illegal encroachment of forest lands in various states/union territories’ issued in July 2002, which says 12.50 lakh hectares of forest land is under encroachment.

The eviction notice brought out the urgency of the situation, more so in the AP context, where the government has been promoting eco-tourism and community forest management projects in the adivasi areas; issuing licenses to private traders for sale of minor forest produce, besides adding acreage to the reserved and protected forest areas, thereby controlling most of the adivasi areas. In addition, it has come up with the draft grazing policy (in finalization of the AP Forestry Project funded by the World Bank) to regulate grazing by re-introducing the grazing fee on herders in open forests.

Reports in the print media suggest a similar development in Orissa, where a preliminary survey of the ‘loss’ to forests by grazing of goats (estimated to be 7000 from villages inside Simlipal and 70,000 from peripheral villages inside the tiger habitat) has been made by the Wildlife Society of Orissa. A former forest official is on record asserting that goat grazing is ‘much more harmful to forests than timber felling and fuel wood collection.’ (The Hindu, 8 February, ‘Goats Depleting Orissa Forests’, p. 7.)

Besides these issues calling for an urgent response, a decision was taken at the ASF to draft a health policy for the adivasis. The Tamilnadu and Kerala adivasi groups demanded implementation of the 5th Schedule, while the focus of the Orissa groups was on mining which has undermined their hold over this resource. The group from Kerala shared their experiences with the struggle against the Coca Cola plant set up at Palaghat.

The adivasi meetings at ASF seem to indicate that the adivasi struggle must be streamlined – gathering adivasis from all the states – towards a more visible, stronger adivasi people’s movement. Perhaps it is time for a confrontationist adivasi rights action plan to bring the term ‘adivasi’ into popular, academic and political debate and focus, as the term ‘dalit’.

R. Uma Maheshwari