Citizens in supposedly democratic countries need to become much more careful about what exactly they are signing up for when they implicitly grant the state a monopoly on violence. Unwittingly and implicitly, they not only grant the state the power to exercise violence on their behalf, but also against themselves. And since - at least initally - the state needs to preserve the figleaf of democratic legitimacy, openness and accountability in the exercise of violence, the legitimate monopoly of violence also demands a great deal more: a legitimate (but not necessarily monopolistic) right to opacity, deception and mendacity. Only occasionally do state criminals receive the punishment that is due under the law, long after the commission of the crime. Taken together with deception, mendacity and opacity, the state monopoly on violence amounts to the acceptance of a legitimate monopoly on criminality. What would be regarded as criminal behaviour among ordinary citizens becomes slightly less so when engaged in by corporate entities like companies, and is increasingly accepted as the justifiable and even virtuous protection of the national interest when the criminal is the state. And since the criminal actions of the state are usually beyond the legal reach of democratic scrutiny, there are rarely any means of knowing when the state has turned into a criminal enterprise, apart from tell-tale signs and anecdotal evidence. Why do citizens need to know this in advance, and not after it has happened? Because they need to arrest the growth of criminality before it becomes an irresistible force, as it has in Pakistan.
I may have created an impression in the foregoing that states start out clean, and only become secretly criminal in the rough and tumble of conducting the affairs of state. There may be good reason to believe that the reality is historically worse than that. I suspect a thorough study may reveal that at least some states were originally criminal enterprises that captured enough power to function as a protector, and over time societies may have evolved systems of laws to keep this genetic criminality in check. It may be that Mafia-like protection rackets are actually proto-states, as the maoists are demonstrating in those areas they control with impunity. Even if the state were not a originally a criminal enterprise, it had none of the attributes of wisdom and neutrality that people normally ascribe to a state. Take the Indian state. After 1947, what did Indian politicians do? Simply take over the instruments and structures of the colonial state that Indians fought for years to eject, change a few words, phrases and symbols, and introduce new commitments to democracy and public welfare that have seldom been taken seriously since they were written into the Constitution. The basic structures and mechanisms that allowed the colonial state to oppress its subjects remained largely in place, including the Penal Code of 1860. Would a more thoroughoing revision of the basic framework have dispensed with the legitimate monopoly on violence? Probably not, but many more safeguards would have been in place that allowed the state to deal with internal and external challenges to security without permanently undermining liberty or criminalizing the innocent. This does not mean that the freedom movement was entirely in vain. It certainly was not for the elites who took the places vacated by the British. But it's useful to recall how quickly it became apparent to the masses after 1947 that very little had changed in the terms of how much influence they had on the actual governance of the country, despite the power to elect their own oppressors, fraudsters and criminals, and occasionally, their own representative.
Citizens normally grant the state the exclusive right to exercise violence on their behalf, because they assume - with little thought - that this violence is necessary for their own security and well-being. This makes sense when the state is protecting its citizens from external attack, and especially when such attack is unprovoked. But what happens when the state ends up exercising violence on a section of its own citizens, supposedly to protect the interest of the entire nation? Or (to take the familiar US example) when the state engages in criminal operations abroad without the knowledge or permission of its citizens, who are later surprised when the criminality of their state "blows back" in their face?
Take, for instance, what is happening now in India with the civil war over natural resources, presented by the government and the media as a war against so-called maoists. Some citizens feel entitled to choose modes of well-being that depend on the violation of the well-being of other citizens, such as when forests and other natural resources need to be destroyed for mining, dams, roads, electricity generation and other infrastructure. This involves the wholesale, often violent removal of adivasis and others of the poorest and most powerless sections of our citizens from their traditional habitats. Furthermore, when they resist this violation - whether with violence or without - they are regarded as being anti-national or anti-development, as if all citizens subscribed to the same concept of national development.
The resistance of the destitute to further deprivation has become easier to present as a violent challenge to the state because of the rejuvenation of an armed peasant insurrection that was brutally suppressed in the 1970's. This movement lay dormant these past four decades in the forests of the most mineral-rich regions of the country, and has managed to successfully impose its leadership on the resistance of the deprived, by taking advantage of the colossal failure of the state to govern, or to learn any useful lessons from past resistance movements of peasants and adivasis. In its most active areas, this insurgency - now calling itself maoist - constitutes an alternative state bringing to the adivasis and poor peasants its own brutal version of justice, along with occasional rudimentary social services, and protection from the unwelcome attentions of the police and revenue officials, where formerly there was little other than the arbitrary violence and exploitation of the state. The maoists have been known to be unsparing and brutal in spreading terror both among people seen to represent the state, or people, including adivasis, suspected of collaboration with the state. Beyond the fact that they ultimately intend to capture state power, no one knows for certain what their vision of the good society is. They too, in their own way, claim a monopoly on violence in areas they control.
The term 'blowback' has been used in the US to refer to the unintended consequences of violent intervention by the US government in other countries, when the victims commit their own terrorism in US soil. 9/11 was the most dramatic example among many others. In India, we may be facing an internal blowback in the recrudescence of the maoist insurrection. Why Naxals, and why now? By brutally suppressing the naxalite insurrection in the 1970's, the state felt - mistakenly, as it turns out - that they had solved the problems that gave rise to the insurrection itself. Many commentators rightly trace it to lack of "development" and the failure of governance, but still seem unable to to make sense of this, and plaintively ask: why are they against development? Instead, what they should be asking is: what does development mean for them? And what options and stake do they have in our system of development? The fact is that what the Indian elite and middle classes have understood by development has offered very little by way of a viable stake to the masses.
This is what is happening in our country right now: One section of citizens feels entitled to flourish and prosper at the expense of another. The land, rivers, forests, lakes and other common property resources that made up the environment and source of livelihood of the second group now need to be appropriated even more aggressively than before by corporations to sustain the livelihoods, life-styles and wealth of the first. The fact that there are constitutional protections for the second group of citizens means nothing: contrast the tardiness and reluctance with which the state implements the fifth schedule to the Constitution, or the Directive Principles, with the speed with which laws are passed and implemented that enable SEZ's, set up MOU's, pass anti-terror legislation removing the most elementary democratic rights and allows the state to re-conceptualize any resistance to corporate resource-grabbing as terrorism, and implement other investor-friendly measures. In this, the entire legitimate criminal apparatus of the state is deployed to protect the interests of the elites and associated middle classes.
This is actually part of a larger pattern in which the state and its machinery is much more active and enabling when the interests of the rich and the powerful are concerned: contrast the relative neglect of public housing, public transportation, public security, public education and public health, with the efficiency, relative freedom from regulation and the huge scale of investment that enables the private sector in these areas to flourish while meeting the needs for housing, transportation, security, education, health and infrastructure for the tenuously prosperous middle classes and the more securely wealthy elites in our country. And compare how speedily the the state intervenes with its security forces and intelligence bureaus - i.e. its instruments of legitimate criminality - to protect the interests of the elite and middle classes, through measures such as Salwa Judum or Operation Green Hunt, compared to efficiently administering justice against real criminals when the victims are the poorest and the least powerful among the faceless "public".
Indian democracy seems to be caught in a grim and seemingly unresolvable paradox: We need the guardianship of the state, but we also need to watch the guardians keenly. How does the public exercise control over the state's legitimate instruments of criminality so that they do not turn into full-fledged criminal enterprises? Indians need to pinch themselves out of their complacency by looking at the suffering of our Pakistani neighbours and imagining their own potential future. It's true that our institutions are much stronger, and that the role of our military is still controlled by civilian authority. But part of the way that terrorism succeeds is by turning the instruments of liberal democracy against itself. It starts slowly, with corruption and venality gradually pervading all the state institutions, ensuring that their services are allocated to the highest bidder. In other words, the protectors of the public masses turn into defenders of private elite interests. When discontent reaches a sufficiently high pitch, the disaffected organize chaos through bombings and murders, through gangs and assassins. The country comes to the boil as the liberal democratic state turns into exactly what it claims to stand against. State terrorism and anti-state terorrism then compete against each other in a mutually self-reinforcing symbiosis.
How far down this road have we already travelled? Unless we are able to find peaceful resolutions to the range of problems that maoists and other extremists symptomatize, we are going to give an increasingly prominent role to our own legitimate criminals till they start operating free from civilian control in ways that we see in Pakistan. Remember, it almost happened in Punjab in the eighties and nineties before we managed to pull away from the brink. It's happening right now in Kashmir and the North-East, and in those states where maoism is rampant. We take state criminality for granted in a way that we do not for ordinary criminality. We know that the laws of the land exist to bring ordinary criminals to justice, even if in practice the laws may work only very imperfectly. But this assurance of the protection does not exist in the case of legitimate state criminality, because the expectation generally does not exist that the state may behave criminally for the public good. Therefore the need for extraordinary vigilance against state criminality is scarcely ever felt as urgently as it should be.
Apart from the slippery slope down which the legitimate monopoly of the state on criminality can take the country, there is another argument that needs to be considered: What would the defender of the state's monopoly on violence do if he or his family were to be attacked by state security forces? Presumably run away, protect himself or his family, or fight back - exactly what the adivasis are doing. But I would love to see him stand up defending the right of the state to exercise violence on his family. This might seem like an ad hominem attack on the defenders of the state monopoly on criminality, but it is not. I am merely suggesting that the concept of the state's monopoly on criminality may seem a necessary abstraction, but in practice it remains highly problematic. The practical problem remains the difficult one of how to constrain it, especially when the temptation to resort to it is the strongest, i.e., during times of political strife and stress. Our country has faced many terrorist attacks in the past, and will probably continue to face them in the future. How can we remain a democracy if we grant immunity and impunity to the legitimate criminals we have employed to protect us? The only permanent safeguard is a fair and speedy system of justice, and building a society based on values of social justice, equal human dignity and equal opportunity. Free market capitalism, unrestrained as it is by notions of social justice and incompatible with it, is inconsistent in the long run with democracy, peace and social justice. Which is precisely why state criminality is so necessary (and therefore 'legitimate') in free market democracies. The freer the market, the more the state needs its armoury of criminality.
Instead of taking such a dim view of legitimate state criminality performing its traditional mandate of protecting the elites against the uppity people, there may be another more "benign" way of seeing this: as a kind of Blairite public-private partnership. The private provisioning of essential services to the elites can be protected from the deprived and ignorant herd at public expense by the legitimate exercise of state criminality. If we can take an appropriately Brahma-like view of time and calmly absorb as the inevitable cost of progress the visions of a few burnt out villages, a few hundreds or thousands of broken, battered bodies each year, of people who will never know what killed them, or why...then there is no need to subtract the screams of burning mothers and their gasping children from the gains of gleaming trains, punctual airports and six-lane highways.
Perhaps in some not too distant future, we will enter a new phase of our politics when the Indian polity will be seen as a contestable market for the service of governance. Each political party could be regarded as a GSP (governance service provider). A coalition or cartel of GSP's could agree to share governance services in a variety of sectors - health, education, internal security, infrastructure, etc. to avail of economies of scale and information. But the competition between different monopolistic GSP's could always have room for the smaller, more agile and low-cost players such as the kind we now call maoists whose USP will always ensure their success in a niche market consisting of adivasis, dalits and poor peasants.
As the Koda scam illustrates, the resources for such GSP's could come from a variety of different channels. Instead of salting away the bribes from the mining companies into tax shelters all over the world, Koda should have set up private security firms like Blackwater or Executive Outcomes, besides investing in his own infrastructural and other enterprises. In fact, Koda would seem to have been a brilliant tax collector! He could even have created his own GSP for the benefit of the companies that paid him. The adivasis too could have been protected by the maoists more effectively, as the Koda revelations show that they too might be turning into another criminal enterprise with the resources to break the monopoly of the state. Perhaps we should not be speaking of criminal enterprises any more, but the markets for various GSP's.
"Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake!"