The state, as scholar Walter Benjamin observed, defines itself as the sole and legitimate purveyor of violence. However, Benjamin would have been astounded to see how this ‘function’ of the state has been privatised recently, into ‘privatised violence’.
‘Privatised violence’ as a concept was elaborated by distinguished law professor Patricia Williams in 2004 when commenting on the reopening of the Emmett Till case. Williams noted that a ‘secondary system of retribution’ exists where violence directed at communities and people is carried out by private contractors, mercenaries and even state functionaries such as soldiers and law enforcement officers.
Williams raises a gory spectre: a parallel system of violence carried out in the name of the state but illicitly. She also notes that this kind of violence is accompanied by racialised discriminatory public discourses.
Corroding Institutional Legitimacy
The nation has the right to protect itself from threats both within and without. However, unless these actions of protection have at least a modicum of legal and ethical sanctity, we enable the rise of privatised violence – now a common feature of the various fringe parties across the country.
The worry here is that the so-called defence of the country’s sovereignty – or that amorphous thing, ‘culture’ – lies in the hands not of the state but these private organisations whose links to the state are but tenuous.
The targeting of specific groups, or individuals in particular groups – Kathua comes immediately to mind – by other, antagonistic majoritarian groups creates all the contexts for the rise of privatised violence.
Oddly, these private, illicit, illegitimate forces use the language of sovereignty, nationalism, patriotism and even, occasionally, antiquity (the ‘oldest’, ‘from ancient times’) in order to further their murderous acts. This language is precisely the engineering of privatised violence in the form of public discourse. As Williams warns, this corrodes the legitimacy of structures like the judiciary.
It is perhaps the feature of the neoliberal state where the presumed sovereignty of the nation is handed over to such private parties. But this abdication of responsibility for any violence by the State creates a troubled citizenry: whose nationalism is called into question, not by the state but by private parties whose own nationalism may not be much to write home about.
In other words, the hedging of nationalist ideas into private ghettos – since it is supposedly now the province of specifically marked groups and ethnicities – enables any group to characterise, without any Constitutional or legal apparatus, as anti-national. The private group, with its penchant for violence, becomes the arbiter of what is national or not, and based on their own unique norms of what constitutes nationalism or national identity.
Thus, privatised violence, which requires a language, lends itself to what may be thought of as ‘appeal-to-origins’ discourses. Specific groups appropriating the language of nationalism, push the idea of the nation into the pre-modern world, but with no historical grounding or empirical proof.
Yet, this same ‘appeal-to-origins’ works differently when, say, the portrait of a Statesman adorns the walls of an educational institution. The institution itself then becomes ‘anti-national’ because this same Statesman eventually fought for a different nation. Privatised violence breaks out over the origins of the Statesman, the institution and the two nations.
Usurping State Functions
Pushed far enough, then, we would discover that almost half of our universities, colleges and schools were set up by white men and governed by white men and women for a very long time, and went on to produce nationalists and freedom-fighters under the very eyes of these founders.
Oddly, the intellectual origins and growth of our best leaders – Ambedkar, Nehru, Gandhi, to think of three – could be tracked to their western university training, degrees and activism. If we were to think of origins, then, would these be anti-national as well?
When privatised violence usurps the discourses of the state – since nation-states are also fond of explicating origins, antiquity and ‘great men’ scenarios – we run grave risks of converting nationalism into a trophy that can only be acquired through the flattening of potential, if mythical, threats.
The Final Act
With no action against such forces, we legitimise them. Privatised violence unchecked generates unlimited arrogance, among the arbiters of definitions, characteristics and limits of political issues such as national identity, cultural belonging and citizenship-rights.
It dispenses with the legal apparatus and the Constitution and tweaks the social imaginary along specific lines. Moral codes suddenly appear on the scene, all underwritten by the incipient violence against ‘violators’.
This is the neoliberal state’s final act of privatisation: what the nation means, is or ought to be is no longer defined by the above apparatuses but by forces and groups who claim the state for themselves, are protected tacitly by the state by its non-action, and inventory those who ‘do not belong’.
If definitions of citizenship can be left to mobs, we no longer need a juridical apparatus, and, as dystopian novels (most recently Leila by Prayaag Akbar) show us, can be left to the ‘most armed group’. National identity? Apply to India, Inc.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)