Dirty War comes closer to home

The term “Dirty War” was coined in Argentina by a military government which wanted to justify mass rape, torture, executions without trials, arrests without bail, chucking dissidents out of planes, etc, as necessary to “prevent subversion”. Between 1976 and 1983, over 30,000 Argentines were killed in sundry ways by men in uniform, usually after being sexually violated and tortured.  Dirty War is now used to describe more generic state-sponsored repression of civilian populations. Latin America has a tradition of rule by military-backed dictators, and military.....
The term “Dirty War” was coined in Argentina by a military government which wanted to justify mass rape, torture, executions without trials, arrests without bail, chucking dissidents out of planes, etc, as necessary to “prevent subversion”. Between 1976 and 1983, over 30,000 Argentines were killed in sundry ways by men in uniform, usually after being sexually violated and tortured. 

Dirty War is now used to describe more generic state-sponsored repression of civilian populations. Latin America has a tradition of rule by military-backed dictators, and military councils, or juntas. There have been “Dirty Wars” in Paraguay (1954–1989), Brazil (1964–1985), Bolivia (1971–1981), Uruguay (1973–1985), and Chile (1973–1990). In each case, the army and the police tortured and killed vast numbers of their own citizens.

Some of the dictatorships also co-opted the Catholic Church (Latin America is overwhelmingly Catholic) to provide “moral support”. Dictators like Jorge Videla of Argentina and Augusto Pinochet of Chile regularly and ostentatiously prayed, alongside committing mass murder.

In each of these nations, the army and the police are still viewed with extreme distrust by those who don’t wear uniforms. People in uniform are perceived as corrupt, vicious and beyond the law. This attitude persists decades after the return of democracy.

It is not unjustified. The Dirty Wars ensured that the armed forces of these nations (the army, paramilitary forces and police) became both corrupt, and politicised. Every Latin American democracy lives under the shadow of possible future coups, and corruption is endemic. Every so often, there are crazy scandals involving uniforms. The Brazilian police set up death squads to murder homeless children. In democratic Buenos Aires, as recently as 2017, there were 121 deaths (including deaths of pre-teen children) caused by the police using excessive force. The police facilitating drug trades is considered the norm in some places.

It is also not surprising the Church was equivocal, or outright supportive of human rights violations. Religious organisations tend to be run by the conservative, and religious hierarchies are not democratic by nature. Moreover, the regimes which ran these countries donated generously to religious institutions, which had a vested interest in propping them up.   

It is not an accident that these are poor countries. Military dictators are not noted for economic savvy, or probity. Apart from the fact that it is hard to run businesses in corrupt and volatile political environments, there was a huge flight of capital during the Dirty Wars, including cash being stashed offshore by members of the regimes themselves. Anybody who could flee and gain asylum elsewhere, fled, which meant a brain drain as well. The Dirty Wars also wiped out the best and the brightest of entire generations in some cases.

Similar things have happened closer to home.  Indonesia went through hell in the 1960s when Suharto came to power. Over a million died, and the country suffered the aftermath for decades. Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan have also had their fair share of Dirty Wars and coups. So has Sri Lanka.

We know from these examples that the legacy of a Dirty War usually goes well beyond poverty. It leads to a toxic mix of corrupt governments, politicised men in uniform who rewrite constitutions and run governments, and religious fundamentalists gaining political leverage.

India has always been exceptional, though it has endured Dirty Wars on a larger scale than most other places. The Dirty Wars in the Northeast have lasted nearly 60 years. The one in Kashmir has lasted 30 years. The one against Left Wing Extremists has lasted 25 years. West Bengal and Punjab suffered Dirty Wars for a decade. Apart from chucking dissidents out of planes, India has logged every other type of conceivable human rights violation during these conflicts.

However, although corruption has always been part of the Indian ethos, Indians in uniform were never politicised, and religious fundamentalists did not have a political say. Notice the past tense. The situation has obviously changed in both instances. As a result, India may now be vulnerable to the same ills that plague its neighbours.


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