The Indian State’s flawed use of force

On Monday, two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, separately, made controversial and provocative statements. In Uttar Pradesh (UP), a party leader, addressing a rally to spread awareness about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act said that those who raised slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Yogi Adityanath would be buried alive. In West Bengal, the party’s state unit president said that BJP governments in UP, Assam and Karnataka had shot protesters “like dogs, dragged them away, and even slapped cases”.

The BJP, to its credit, was quick to distance itself from both remarks. This is important. But the comments, in the wake of recent protests and the government crackdown on them, throw up a larger question about State authority and violence.

Let us go back to two principles which govern any civilised society based on rule of law. In a democracy, the right to express one’s views, the right to protest, the right to organise demonstrations, and the right to critique policies and legislations, is fundamental. But there is one caveat — the expression of dissent must be peaceful. While, for most part, the protests against the CAA and a possible National Register of Citizens (which the government has now said is not on the table) have been peaceful, the vandalism of public property in UP and West Bengal and parts of Delhi, and the stone-pelting against police in pockets of the Capital such as Seelampur, crossed this red line. The State, then, is within its rights to respond responsibly.

The second inter-related principle is that the State has a monopoly of force. It is the only legitimate authority which has a coercive apparatus under its control, and the right to use these coercive instruments. But this too has a caveat — the State’s use of force must be proportionate to the violation; it must be within the framework of law; and it must be carefully exercised with the clear aim of restoring order, protecting and securing citizens, enabling citizens to fully exercise their rights, and ensuring justice. It is this principle which has been violated in a substantial measure in recent times.

Take three examples.

The first is Kashmir. There is no doubt that India has faced terrorism, often instigated and sponsored by Pakistan from across the border. The State’s authority and its monopoly over force has been consistently challenged in the Valley. It is, thus, within its rights to bring in any change which can help establish this authority as well as restore peace and order, and provide citizens the room to live freely. The government argued that the nullification of Article 370 and the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir will do precisely this.

But while the region has seen relative peace over the past five months, and the State appears all-powerful at the moment, this has happened at the cost of curtailing citizen rights. The restrictions on connectivity and communication (now partially eased), the detention of leaders and activists, and the clampdown on political protests, including peaceful ones, have marked the new normal in the Valley.

In this case, it is clear that the State, in the process of establishing its authority, has taken rather arbitrary and arguably undemocratic measures, which, instead of enabling citizens to exercise their rights, restricts them, and instead of ensuring more individual freedom, curtails it.

The second example is how the State has responded to protests in UP and Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. Once again, the fact that public property was vandalised in UP — and a mob turned violent around the Jamia area on December 15 — warranted the State to step in.

But there is now enough evidence to suggest that the manner in which this was done was excessive. In Jamia, Delhi Police decided to walk into the university, assault students, and even vandalise campus infrastructure, including the library. In UP, the CM spoke of “revenge” — this, then, became a signal to the lower ranks of the police force to act with a strong degree of vengeance. It resulted in detentions, including of those citizens who had nothing to do with the violence; it reportedly resulted in the police itself vandalising homes, especially of Muslims; it resulted in the disproportionate use of force, where close to 20 protesters were killed; and it resulted in arbitrary notices sent out to a range of citizens, once again mostly Muslims, with the threat of attaching their properties.

In this case, it is clear that the State used its legitimate monopoly over force irresponsibly. In the process of restoring order, it, in fact, created disorder.

The third instance is what happened in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5. Irrespective of the background of the unrest in the university — amid competing claims about which faction of students started the cycle of attacks and assaults — what is clear is the following. Masked miscreants entered the campus; they assaulted students and teachers; there was almost a targeted attack on those who were seen as adversaries; a mob outside the university cheered on the protesters and intimidated, even attacked, civil society activists and journalists.

In this case, it is clear that the State failed to do its primary job of securing the life and liberty of citizens. It was either incompetent or was unwilling to act. The police’s subsequent actions also show that its priority has not been ensuring justice for those who were attacked, but arguably protecting the perpetrators of the violence.

Put it all together, and what do you have? The Indian State has restored order at the cost of some rights (Kashmir). It has used its legally sanctioned coercive powers to perpetuate, what the political theorist Madhav Khosla recently termed, extra-constitutional violence (UP and Jamia).And it has allowed mobs to wrest away the power to perpetrate violence, thus failing to ensure peace and security (JNU). All of this will erode the faith of citizens in the State. It will also weaken the State’s own monopoly over force. And it will make statements by those leaders in UP and Bengal not seem like fringe remarks, but an attempt to redefine how the State will engage with dissent and dissenters.

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