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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 33

Slaying of A.T. Babu

The latest in failure of governance

Saturday 2 August 2008, by Sudhir Vombatkere

A.T. Babu was the leading light of the RMVAS [Rajya Madyapaana Virodhi Andolana Samithi or State Temperance (Anti-Liquor) Movement] in Bangalore, Karnataka, for nearly two decades. He was an ever-cheerful, dedicated and action-oriented voluntary social worker with Gandhian motives, opposing the establishment of bars and liquor vends near places of education and worship and in residential areas, and tirelessly agitating with both the government as well as the people for the correct implementation of extant Excise Law and Rules. Thus, he was a source of strength and encouragement to women and children who, invariably, are sufferers of the end result of liquor consumption by men, but at the same time, he was a source of trouble and a nuisance to excise contractors and the powerful liquor lobby of Karnataka. The reader may well ask the reason for the use of the past tense. The shocking fact is that A.T. Babu was ruthlessly hacked to death on July 21, 2008, in broad daylight on a highway outside Bangalore, by killers armed with machetes, after stopping him while he was driving his car to Mandya to attend a meeting along with two activists seated in the back of the car. He and his RMVAS were members of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and he was the NAPM’s Karnataka State Convenor when he was slain.

As may be expected, A.T. Babu had received several threats during his years in this social service, but with his mind set on socially-benevolent goals, he gave little thought for his own safety. The chilling aspect of Babu’s slaying was that his killers did not bother to wear masks or conceal their identity to anybody on the roadside or to the horrified and stunned women activists in the back seat of his car, who saw them at close quarters. This could only be because they, like all “supari” killers, are professionals with little to fear from the authorities, killing targeted persons with dispatch for a fee paid by those who have hired them.

Supari killings are not new especially in metros, when competitors in business, or people in possession of incriminating knowledge or inconvenient truths are eliminated by paying supari killers. However, A.T. Babu’s slaying is of a completely different kind. This is the slaying of a social worker who was essentially engaged in welfare activities that the government should have been, but was not, doing. Another recent, not dissimilar, example is the slaying on May 14, 2008, of Lalit Mehta, an activist in Jharkhand, who had accessed expenditure records of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) for verification against data obtained from the field, thereby posing a threat to those who had been involved in large-scale corruption.

A.T. BABU’S brutal slaying was clearly meant to do at least two things, namely, eliminate Babu who was a thorn in the side of the liquor business, and warn all social activists that they must not trifle with the liquor lobby. A large demonstration was held on July 24, 2008, at Bangalore—appropriately near Gandhi’s statue—to condole Babu’s death and to demand justice. NAPM activists and social workers came from many places in Karnataka and also from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, while Medha Patkar came from Maharashtra. A delegation led by Hasan Mansoor and Medha Patkar met the Karnataka Chief Minister and presented a Memorandum containing several demands. Among the demands was one that called for the immediate arrest of the killers who were at large even three days after the murder because the police had not bestirred themselves, and another that called for 24x7 police protection for the women who were in the car when the murder took place.

Police Intelligence has information about the background, habits, areas of operation, connections and whereabouts of criminals of various kinds. But often enough, killers are not arrested because of the danger to the police personnel who do so, or because the person(s) who ordered the killing are too powerful or need time to cover their tracks and let somebody inconsequential take the rap. Let us consider these two reasons. The policeman who makes the arrest will himself instantly become a target for liquidation and/or his family will begin to live under constant threat of kidnapping, rape or death. As for the second point, frightening questions arise, like, “Is the government really in charge?”, or “Is the government only a front for shadowy vested interests?”

Money-power and its potential for violence against anybody who dares to disagree with those who possess that power, is on the rise in India. It is the negation of democracy. Unaccounted and unaccountable money was and is being used to instigate killings of social activists like A.T. Babu and Lalit Mehta or, going back to 1991, trade union leaders like Datta Samant in Mumbai and Shankar Guha Niyogi in Chhattisgarh. Or to rent-a-mob to kill or threaten people, or “raid” and vandalise particular premises, or suppress legitimate and peaceful people’s protests. This demonstrates one of four things, namely, that government is not really in control but vested interests are, or that certain politicians, bureaucrats and police officials are complicit in criminal activities, or some people in the government are influenced by money or threat to officially do or not do certain things, or the government itself is actually in thrall of anti-social forces and hence impotent against them.

The silver lining to this foul murder of A.T. Babu is that it has roused right-thinking people to demand justice from the government and voluntarily take up, with renewed vigour, the work such as A.T. Babu was doing. It is non-violent people-power alone that can reduce and eventually defeat the growing forces of money-power.

Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere retired from active military service in 1996 and has since been engaged in voluntary work in the social, civic and environmental fields with Mysore Grahakara Parishat (MGP) in Mysore. He is also a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). He holds a Ph.D in Structural Engineering from IIT, Madras. He teaches a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development to students from University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their programme of Studies Abroad in South India.

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