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Issue 10

Power, Violence and The State: Can one exist without the other?

Rujuta Singh

The idea that the state should have control over legitimate violence is widely accepted around the world. However, with several incidences of police brutality in the past year, this power is beginning to be questioned. Do states use violence to legitimize their sovereignty, and should this power be curbed?

Maintaining a power structure has historically always involved some level of violence. The British once ruled the largest empire in the world, and violently suppressed revolts and uprisings that took place in their colonies. In North America, as the Atlantic slave trade flourished, men and women who had been free citizens in Africa often rebelled against their masters. These rebellions were also met with violence and death. Today though empires have broken up into nation states and slavery has been abolished, violence is still an important tool in the arsenal of any authority.  

According to the World Health Organization, violence is the “intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”  The role and importance of violence in the political order is a long-debated subject. Some, such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, gave violence a prominent role in human affairs. More recently Foucault and Arendt argued against the idea that violence was at the essence of human nature. Realistically, nation states today still center the political order around threatened or actual violence, in keeping with Weber’s definition of the state as that which has a monopoly over legitimate violence 

The police and the army as well as any other defense forces of a country enjoy a great deal of power. Ostensibly, they are meant to protect the people of that country from external and/or internal threats. By and large, it is widely accepted that nation states need some sort of protective body with the power to use force, both at the local and national level, and that this protective body ultimately benefits the citizens. It is when the use of force becomes excessive and unjustified that the role of these bodies begins to be questioned. What leads authority figures to abuse their power? What constitutes an abuse of power, especially in places where violence is institutionalized? 

If you thought you were in danger, or you needed help, would you call the police? If you answered no, you would be in the majority in India. A survey conducted in 2018 found that only a quarter of Indians trust the police. India has a long and troubled history of police misconduct, and many police practices date back to the days of colonial rule. The Police Act of 1861 allowed police to maintain law and order through the use of brutal violence. It was a way for the foreign rulers of the time to assert their power. Though India is now ruled by a democratically elected government, police brutality continues.

In June 2020, two men were arrested in Tamil Nadu for violating Covid-19 lockdown rules and tortured in custody. They both died a few days later. The incident sparked outrage and led to protests against police brutality, with many likening the incident to the death of George Floyd in the United States. While the episode was deeply disturbing, suspects dying in police custody is by no means a recent phenomenon.  According to the National Human Rights Commission, 194 people died in police custody in 2019. It is rare for police in India to be tried and convicted for these deaths, or even questioned. According to the Bureau of Police Research and Development, a body under the Ministry of Home Affairs, no police officers have been convicted of a crime since 2011, while there have been almost 900 deaths in police custody during the same period.

 The Indian army, controlled by the central government, has also been accused of undue violence. In 2016, a plea was filed by two NGOs in Manipur, stating that there had been apathy on the part of the central and state governments in investigating the deaths of 1528 people who died at the hands of the Indian army and Manipur police. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been in force in several parts of  North East India since 1958. It was enforced in Manipur in 1980. Under this act, security forces cannot be prosecuted for any action undertaken or said to be undertaken under the powers of the Act, while in service in conflict regions, unless the prosecution is sanctioned by the central government. This exemption from punishment for actions, even those involving lethal force, can create a culture of impunity in areas where the Act is in force. In the 2012 PIL case, the government argued in the Supreme Court that a lack of immunity from prosecution would have a demoralizing effect on the armed forces. Violence is used to reify the state’s sovereignty and allows it to assert its dominance. 

Cases of excessive violence, where victims are tortured or killed in especially brutal and violent ways, are what necessitate an investigation into the relationship between power and violence. Thangjam Manorama was killed by the 17th Assam Rifles (a unit of the Indian army) in 2004. A report that was made public a decade after her death describes how she was tortured on her front porch and had 16 bullet wounds on her body when she was found. The original argument for AFSPA, which was meant to be a temporary act, was that state forces needed sweeping powers to deal with terrorism in disturbed areas. While this argument can justify shoot-on-sight orders or arrests without warrants, it does not explain torture and extremely brutal killings. Explanations of this abuse of power must delve into the human psyche, cultures of impunity, and power structures in the modern nation state. 

Rujuta Singh is a student of Political Science, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are music, fashion and writing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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