The Bharatiya Janata Party government has established a new public-public partnership model of violence.
Max Weber, the 19th-century German jurist, widely called the father of modern sociology, famously wrote that the state is that “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory”. There are constitutional constraints to regulate the state’s use of violence, but states or more accurately governments often transgress.
To ensure that its unauthorised violence is not questioned, governments need to persuade the public that the violence is undertaken on their behalf, for their safety. But there are also times when the state does this through persuading one section of the public that violence is necessary to protect themselves against another section. In such situations, the state devolves some of its own power to that section of the population which is being wooed. That is how private militias are born. The BJP has cultivated this model of public (state)-public (a segment of the population) partnership in violence.
Consider the images of police building trenches, barricades, road blocks, barbed wire and dangerously protruding steel spikes to wall-in the protesting farmers. These images, which one can see all along the Singhu and Tikri borders of Delhi, bring to mind sequences from the Hindi movie Mughal E Azam. People of my generation grew up with the image of the autocratic emperor Akbar having a wall built around Anarkali merely because she had incurred his wrath by daring to love Saleem, the prince.
We grew up knowing that unjust emperors tormented their opponents by burying them alive, crushing them under the feet of elephants or built impenetrable walls around those that angered them. We do not know what to make of such actions when modern states carry them out. We thought that in a modern republic, we were guaranteed a rule of law that applies equally to members of the public and those that govern.
The walls erected on the borders of Delhi are four feet high. Large nails and bars have been planted around these walls to make it impossible for vehicles to move in or out of the camp sites.The rage of the emperor is imprinted all over these walls, spikes, cement deposits and trenches.
Modern states, of course, cannot quite crush people under the feet of elephants. But they can do more damage. Water supply to the camps has been shut off, access to toilets has been blocked and ambulances are not allowed to pass. The police are doing everything possible to make it impossible for the agitators to continue.The police chief of Delhi tells you sternly that all this was warranted. He says, “Where were you when the policemen were attacked? Why are you objecting to it now? We are taking these measures for our own protection.”
Regardless of the claims made by the police chief, we must ask questions. We must ask about the policemen armed with steel rods. Under what law has this been done? What right does the police have to erect walls on highways and streets?
Roads and highways are not owned by the police. Has the Ministry of Roads authorised the erection of concrete blocks on highways?
Who is paying for all this expenditure? If the police can spend so much on suppressing a movement, why has it been citing lack of resources as the reason for not filing chargesheets against students and other protesters who are being incarcerated?
Is the government “permitted” to deny farmers basic amenities? Do laws permit police to restrain the life and mobility of citizens in the name of safety?
These are questions everyone must ask, even the critics of the movement under way. All governments have an autocratic impulse. If the public is not critically aware, they can easily be turned from citizens to subjects. Those that wield power tend to be autocratic, which is why there are laws to regulate power, in a democracy. Governments deploy their power through the military, the paramilitary and the police forces. All these arms of the government can cause irrevocable damage.
In a democracy, people are not subjects that belong to the government. It is the government that belongs to the people. Both are bound by the constitution and by law. The public forms the government, and is in a position to hold it accountable or change it. While the government has the power to use violence, the public cannot do so, at least not legally.
The government needs to ensure that no one questions its unjustified and excessive use of violence against a certain group or community. To do this, it woos a section of the public and conveys to it the imperative of inflicting violence on the targeted group. By being overtly partisan, the government secures its position, while offering a license to the co-opted group to indulge in violence. This group is then granted a right to be violent without any fear of consequences.
Repeatedly, we are witnessing gangs indulging publicly in acts of violence and egging the police on to do so. Last year the violence was directed at Muslims, this year it is the farmers. By creating this illusion of being the spokesperson of a section of the population, the government secures its backing, support and participation in the arbitrary use of excessive force against the “enemy” section within the country’s population.
The Bihar government has declared that those participating in protests will be ineligible for government jobs. The UP government is demanding that farmers sign bonds stating that they will not participate in the movement.
Is the government authorised to control the actions of its citizens? What defines a citizen, then?
The Government of India has secured “Hindus” as partners in this power to inflict pain. It tells them, “Look, we grabbed the land of the Babri Masjid for you; look, we passed the triple talaq law laws to teach Muslim men a lesson; we brought laws to save your women; we are allowing you to attack Muslims in the name of collecting donations for the temple or in the name of the national flag. If they oppose, then punish them. If we are giving you this power, then in return, will you not bestow on us unbridled power to guard your interests and protect you?
The attack on Capitol Hill on Donald Trump’s instigation was based on this assurance to the white people. We saw that the farmers of Tikri and Singhu were attacked under police protection. Police have described the attack as a legitimate expression of public disaffection.
The thing to bear in mind is that after giving the public the right to violence, the government can also tighten its grip. If the army has re-captured power in Myanmar today, it is likely that they will not oppose the abduction of its authority by the Buddhists in return for the violence they have inflicted on the Rohingya people.
The government, through the police and through the public, is doing to the farmers what it did to Muslims last year. The ideal of sharing the power of violence between the ‘people’ and the government has been firmly established. This model is not new. In China, Mao had involved a part of the public in violence. Hitler captured Germany by persuading the German public to be violent against the Jews.
Currently, it appears that the government is testing the extent to which it can involve a pliant public in its violent repression of the farmers. But it is not easy. Despite its shortcomings, the public of this nation is not easy to turn into subjects.Our democratic leanings and our resistance to force is not new. We possessed this even before independence.
And so we see even people of BJP-ruled states joining the farmers. They are smelling enslavement. People in Western UP are acknowledging their folly in having earlier destroyed the lives of their Muslim neighbours at the behest of the Hindutva forces.
The government has disenfranchised the citizen by dividing society. The public is trying to reclaim its sovereignty. If this claim is to succeed, all sections of the public must join the struggle.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.
Translated from the Hindi original by Anant Mariganti.