In one of the most dangerous developments facing the country today, a fundamental public sector undertaking (PSU) of the nation is being subversively privatised: violence. The Indian state—as indeed any other state—must in order to exist hold a monopoly over the resort to violence, or the use of physical force.
When the state imposes capital punishment on a criminal it is a legitimate execution; when a private individual wilfully takes the life of another citizen it is murder, which the state, and only the state, has the right to avenge through the death penalty.
Through the enforcement of its penal code, through its sovereign right to declare war against another nation, the state zealously protects its monopoly on violence, on the actual use or the threat of use of physical force. It must do so if it is to survive as a state and not degenerate into chaos, with each one’s hand against his neighbour’s in murderous conflict without referee or redress.
Violence, its use or the threat of its use, is the foundational PSU without which the state can’t exist. And there are signs that in India, this pivotal PSU is being privatised, with private citizens—in the form of mobs or militias—taking the law into their own hands and challenging the state’s monopoly on violence.
The privatised violence of mob fury can take many forms.Such violence can be directed against a person, or persons, suspected of eating beef, or who may be smuggling cattle. Self-styled ‘gau rakshaks’, or ‘cow protectors’ have lynched several people on this pretext, and, by and large, the perpetrators of this form of mob violence have gone unpunished, instigating others to follow their example.
Another increasingly common example of mob violence is that which is incited by demands for caste reservations, for various sub-castes and communities. Civil society is held to ransom by rampaging mobs who resort to random violence and destruction of public and private property in the name of a social justice which they claim has been denied to them. As political parties across the board depend on caste-based vote banks, those who engage in this kind of mob violence also go unpunished.
There is the privatised violence of so-called ‘honour killings’ whose victims are couples who belong to different castes or communities. Often the targets of such violence are Dalits, or Muslims accused of waging ‘love jihad’ by seeking to marry women from the majority community with the objective of converting them to the Islamic faith.
A recent form of privatised violence which has erupted in Gurugram, Haryana, has been tagged as ‘land jihad’ and targets Muslims offering namaz on public land as there is a shortage of mosques in the area.
What is the real meaning of mob fury and what causes the smallest spark to ignite it? The general answer is that people have lost faith in the ‘system’—an amorphous amalgam of politicians, the police, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, etc.—and vent their frustrations in outbursts of mob frenzy, spurred on by a sensation-hungry media that highlights such incidents.
Mob rule, however, represents a far graver danger than that of sporadic violence: it questions the very existence of the state as a whole, and not just one segment or manifestation of it. In this sense, mob violence is as subversive of the state as a campaign of terrorism.
A recent press report revealed that with lawlessness on the increase, the total number of private security personnel for the first time has outstripped the aggregate of all our police forces and defence services rolled into one.The police and the defence forces are traditionally the bulwarks protecting the state’s monopoly on violence. When the private sector, in terms of sheer number, undermines the guarantors of that monopoly, the very fabric of the state is called into question.
Indeed, by encouraging the formation of the Salwa Judum—‘people’s militia’ (whose members are often no more than teenagers)—to combat extremists in Chhattisgarh, the state has implicitly abrogated its sovereign and exclusive right on the use of violence. Long before this, ‘private armies’ like the Ranvir Sena have held sway over large parts of Bihar and elsewhere. And in the vacuum left behind by an absconding state, so-called Naxals have almost total control of some 160 districts in the country.
What instigates the private takeover of the state’s monopoly on violence? It is when that monopoly is seen to be criminally and flagrantly misused, as happened in Nandigram and in other cases of forcible dispossession of lands and forests from their traditional and rightful owners.
When any state monopoly fails, private players step in to fill the gap. And in this case, those private players include lawless mobs and armed insurgents. The brick and the bullet and the flaming torch replace the rule of law and disorder.
Writer, columnist and author of several books