Legitimate use of force vs citizens’ consent: the challenge exposed by Sitalkuchi incident


Legitimate order signified by the symbolic presence of security forces is the essence of state-ness. As such, the fact that the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), deployed to ensure the orderly conduct of polls, had to actually resort to shooting on April 10 at the polling station in Sitalkuchi, West Bengal, resulting in the death of four members of an unruly mob, indicates a threat to the very foundation of the Indian state. The security forces were gheraoed by the mob, with the implicit support of the regional government which had objected to the dispatch of paramilitary forces as mandated by the independent Election Commission of India. The shooting broke the spell of the symbolism of authority and, thereby, snapped a vital link in the causal chain that connects force and consent, and of both in the making of legitimacy.

Under normal circumstances, the presence of armed men serves a symbolic purpose. Therefore, a shot fired by the security forces at citizens strips the state of the majesty that is indispensable for its normal functioning. The incident, which points towards the vulnerable underbelly of the Indian state, also alerts us to an unsolved problem of democratic theory. Is orderly rule the outcome of a social contract, with individuals freely choosing to set up an authoritative ruler? Or, is the existence of order a precondition for people to be able to make their choices freely? Is the presence of armed security forces to reinforce civil authorities a denial of democracy, or are armed forces the last defence of democracy against anarchy, disorder and individual or collective violence?

Postcolonial states, in contrast with their peers in long-established democracies, face a special problem with regard to orderly rule. As a legacy of the anti-colonial movement, the distrust of forceful action by the state runs deep in the political culture of modern India. The same mistrust of force leads to the routine protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act,1958, which permits military authorities to “assist the civilian rule” in areas considered “disturbed”. Following this incident, the deployment of paramilitary forces and the phased nature of Indian elections to facilitate the movement of troops from one location to another, a routine activity so far, can no longer be seen as unproblematic. The fact that the four individuals who were shot by the security forces belong to the minority community and that the Chief Minister of West Bengal has already labelled the episode as “genocide”, adds an additional, dangerous dimension to its fallout.

In order to promote and protect the security of the state, territorial integrity and orderly rule in general, the Ministry of Home Affairs of India has been accorded vast resources, rarely discussed in the cut and thrust of everyday politics, by the Constitution. These are impressive in terms of their military strength, budget, personnel, and because of being headquartered in the national capital, their proximity to the nerve centre of the state. Since Independence, this security infrastructure has evolved with the times, and innovated new strategies and linkages. Under the Allocation of Business Rules, nine agencies are listed as components of the Ministry’s order-keeping capacity. There are: Assam Rifles, Border Security Forces, Indo-Tibetan Police, Sashastra Seema Bal, Central Industrial Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force, National Security Guard, Civil Defence and Home Guards. The capacity of these forces, reinforced by a network of intelligence agencies, is coordinated by several committees responsible for inter-ministerial and inter-federal coordination and accountable to Parliament.

Paramilitary forces form part of the two-track strategy of the Indian state, elegantly formulated by Stephen Cohen as “first hit them over the head with a hammer, [and] then teach them to play the piano”. They are organised on the lines of the military but there is a radical distinction between their respective functions, which involve close cooperation with a wide spectrum of agencies. The main task of the military is to fight foreign enemies of the state whereas the insurgents, unruly mobs, and militants with whom the paramilitary forces engage are actually citizens of India, legally entitled to due process of the law. The main strategic goal of the paramilitary in this case is to contain the rebellion, discipline the mobs and wean the insurgents and rebels away from anti-state violence and persuade them back into the normal political process. The task, in this sense, is multiple, requiring well-drilled troops capable of taking on imminent danger, as well as winning “hearts and minds” through dialogue, negotiation and extending what welfare and relief they can, within their limited resources. The shooting in West Bengal, which indicates the breakdown of this chain, has a significance far beyond a specific regional election.

Force plays a residual role in all democracies. But the rulers in postcolonial democracies walk on a razor’s edge. Not enough force would be self-defeating; too much force might make the system tip over into authoritarianism, or worse. The Bengal incident, thus, sheds light on the serious problem that the Indian state is up against, such as justifying the forceful presence of the paramilitary in Kashmir, central and eastern India, affected by Maoist violence, and pockets of the Northeast where insurgency is still alive. True statesmanship lies in striking the right balance between force and consent, and taking responsibility for the choices made. Therein lies a challenge for the Indian state, and her articulate and alert public intellectuals.

The writer is emeritus professor of political science, Heidelberg University, Germany. His book, Governance by Stealth: The Ministry of Home Affairs and Making of the Indian State, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press

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