Thursday, June 21, 2012

Do States Have Monopoly Over Violence?

Recently, my wife was reading her morning newspaper that carried a story and a photograph in which a Police officer was shown as aiming and shooting at rampaging students.   During the course of reading she showed the picture to my 7 year old daughter and tried to explain what was happening.  Daughter had one look at the picture and almost disdainfully dismissed all the explanations being given by the mother and said:

 “What is your problem? Police are doing their job... Who asked these people to go there and fight them?”
My wife was surprised at this direct answer and spoke to me immediately.  I had a good laugh at the exchange.  But later it made me think.... was this 7 year old girl right in thinking the way she did? 

There is no doubt Police were ‘doing their job’.  After all, the students came there and resorted to violence on their own volition.  But the Police were asked by the State to be there and take necessary steps to stop the violence, that being their job!  Also, a violent mob with numerical superiority cannot be controlled except with use of more severe power.

She was further proved right when the details of circumstances of shooting came out later in which it was revealed that the Police Officer resorted to shooting as the violent students were blocking the road and preventing the injured policemen being taken to hospitals, for treatment.   I am sure that if I was in the position of that Officer, responsible for the safety and life of my men, I would shoot too!

Sometimes the innocent logic of children gives more accurate perspectives than what we adults with our prejudiced minds can give! For her, it didn’t matter who was at the receiving end... But we elders will form our reaction based on whether the students belonged to our party or some opposite party!

Such situations are not unique.  We come across the news of use of power by the State arms like Police and Military against its own citizens.  In an ancient kingdom or a modern autocracy anyone can easily understand the Forces acting against own people if it is necessary to protect the King or the autocrat.  But in a democracy, use of force by State machineries becomes questionable as it amount to use of force by servants against their own masters!  In democracy, employees of State are servants and people are masters!

We often get to hear about State violence as a legitimate defence when we question violent methods used by extremist forces and even political groups.  Maoists and other motley groups that use violence as a tool for forcing State to accept their agenda, often justify their violence by citing the violence of State.

While not questioning the need for the States to employ better conciliation methods in resolving public grievances of its citizens, one cannot envisage a situation where the State is made to stand by and watch while its citizens are resorting to violence.  The States have to control any violent act of its citizens, no matter what the purpose and motives are behind such acts.  

In order to understand this further, we need to look at what is a State and what is the source of its powers and why its powers include the right to use violence.  State has no material existence. It is not the land mass within the borders.  It is merely an abstract legal concept; a juridical person.  It represents the collective authority within a political unit.  The source of this authority is its own people.  For example, Indian State got its powers from the Constitution that was a result of the act of “We the People, having solemnly resolved to constitute.....” as stated in the Preamble to the Constitution.

In other words, State’s authority represents the accumulated rights surrendered by its citizens in its favour.   The accumulation makes it the most powerful entity within its geographical boundaries. It assumes sovereignty over the areas under its administration and over all its inhabitants.  Its instruments like legislature and executive derives power from it to make laws and regulations and enforce them over the citizens and others.

Why do people voluntarily subject themselves to such powers of the State?  It is because, without such a centralised power and enforcer, the result will be anarchy and chaos leading to disintegration of the nation itself.   This surrender is the small cost that we all pay for the security, safety and order that the State provides us.  Once surrendered, same cannot be retracted except under a revolution or anarchy.

The nature of powers entrusted in a State could vary in each case.  Most modern States have restrictions and regulations imposed on it as well, so as to balance the interests of the people.  Fundamental rights enshrined in Indian Constitution are examples for such restrictions on the exercise of powers by a State.

Among other instrumentalities, States invariably have military and police wings to counter any external or internal aggressions, respectively.  These wings are expressly authorised to use force and violence in performing their functions, subject of course to any regulations governing them.  While it may seem odd as in that old Malayalam proverb ‘Vadi Koduthu Adi Vanguka’ (meaning, Gift a stick and get beaten up) that one is gifting away powers to use violence against oneself, it was done with clear understanding that such a power in State is inevitable and unavoidable.

Now that we have discussed how and why these powers to use violence are bestowed upon States, let us see if States should have monopoly on violence.  The basis of empowering States with power of violence is to ensure stopping of violence by all others.  So, when a person decides to become part of a State or is born in a State, it is implied that he or she is giving up the right to use violence as a means to get redressal of any grievances, be it against State agencies or private individuals.  Violence by anyone other than authorised State agencies is made a crime, punishable as per laws of the State.

In other words, the monopoly in violence is one of the basic features of modern States.  If any sub groups start resorting to violence for any purpose, then it is the duty of the State to put a stop to it.  So, no one can complain about State agencies using force to control violators of this basic rule.  One can only question if there is unjustified or excess use of force, or illegal use of force, as in the case of fake encounters etc.  On the contrary, State must be made answerable if it fails in using necessary force to stop violence by any group, as in the case of a riot. 

I agree with my daughter... State/Police must do its duty and even use force where necessary.  It can’t remain a mere spectator, in dereliction of duty bestowed upon it, to violence by others, irrespective of the cause, howsoever noble it might be.

We as citizens must learn, and State must facilitate, to use methods other than violence and use of force to get our voices heard and just demands met.  State is a necessary evil for our own well being and therefore, we can’t wish away or weaken it. Any Redressal against State must be through only the judicial or other non-violent methods.


  1. We often forget the difference between use of force to control violent mobs and unjustified use of power in cases of false encounters etc. / disproportionate use of power. Mob violence or abuse of numbers to the inconvenience of others was never democratic and State has the right to use greater force to take care of those situations and if one resorts to those, one has to be prepared for the consequences. Well written.

  2. Letting things go out of hand is states failure.. - Reena Satin..