City City Bang Bang, Columns

The age of the private army

The mayhem unleashed by the supporters of Ram Rahim is an emphatic reminder of how a parallel structure is building legitimacy, and finding ways of challenging the state with impunity. What we saw in Panchkula and elsewhere was a surrender to a force that had no official standing, but was able to cause carnage without fear or hesitation.

The supra-official nature of religious leaders is a well-documented fact. Leaders of sects and self-proclaimed gurus of all kinds are treated with exaggerated respect and servility. The fact that Ram Rahim was officially part of the list of those entitled to use the VIP Lounge at airports (in practice, along with the right not to be frisked, the highest civilian honour that the government can bestow on an individual) should not really be surprising.

Informal power is increasingly receiving formal sanction. Through instruments like special privileges at public places, provision of security and police escorts, the creation of facilities earmarked for VIPs, we are all being told that there exists a class of people that hover above the law, for reasons not specified. The supporters of these leaders draw sustenance from this tacit acknowledgement. As it is, they derive their sense of extra-legal legitimacy from believing in ideas that are deemed to be too sacred to challenge- religion, or increasingly even more potent- the idea of patriotism.

While the Ram Rahim supporters turned violent in response to what they saw as a provocation, there are many other such quasi-armies that operate with wider goals, some under the supervision of the state. Gau rakshaks and anti-Romeo squads are examples of how unregulated islands of muscle are used to enforce an agenda through intimidation and the use of informal power. Social media warriors play the same role with great effectiveness. They act with impunity, secure in the knowledge that acts of illegality committed by them will pass unnoticed or if noticed, will be actively overlooked. Indeed, in many instances, the victims will be blamed and acted against.

Apart from the private armies that are already operational, there are others that could conceivably be deployed similarly. Kawadias may have started life as pilgrims, but today the manner in which they assert themselves reeks more of a private army that gets the license to act as they deem fit. Baba Ramdev is planning a private security agency whose self-described aim includes the desire to “help develop military instinct in each and every citizen of the country so as to awaken the spirit and determination for individual and national security.”

The private army is a way of embodying a cultural impulse in an attempt to display its dominance. It puts in a vivid material form, what is otherwise an abstract sense of power. Private armies make a cultural position feel powerful, for it can now overwhelm what is sees as an enemy figure. It is able to introduce an arbitrary note of fear- of intimidating those that are not breaking any law but running foul of an imposed cultural norm. In most cases, the norm chosen is proxy for a specific community or group that is specifically targeted.

Given that cultural agendas are difficult to enforce through the formal institutions of the state, (although considerable progress has been made on that front too), the private army is used as a force multiplier that seemingly reflects the will of a powerful section. It is able to use methods that the law does not permit, allowing the state plausible deniability. The militarisation of our public discourse has led to a greater acceptance of violence by the state and against people deemed to be acting against ‘national’ interests.

Increasingly, lofty ideas like the honour of a religion and the integrity of the country get located in ever-smaller acts of symbolism. Anyone not standing up for the national anthem in effect issues a license for public violence to everyone else.

New standards of behavior get created every week, and in each such move, the desire is to test the limits to which the other side is willing to obey. Bit by bit, ground is ceded, but nothing is enough. A tank in a university, Vande Mataram in schools, colleges, even offices, national anthem in films, removing the mention of cows from a documentary, removing footwear while unfurling the national flag. Any challenge to these ‘small’ suggestions is a sign that one’s heart in not in the right place, or more precisely it belongs in Pakistan.

The power of seemingly benign majoritarianism is that each step is possible to decode as being harmless. Why should a tank not grace an educational institution? Indeed, there are several examples that exist already. Growing up, I used to pass a tank that graced the compounds of the Engineering college in Vadodara. Of course, it did little to inculcate a desire to join the Army, if the number of Gujaratis in the armed forces is any indication. Why should one not be made to sing Vande Mataram? It is another matter, that as a memorable TV moment, the person forcefully arguing for the same did not know the words to the national song. The value is clearly not in the action, but in identifying and acting against those that oppose it.

It is worth keeping in mind that mobs can be indiscriminate, and that jungle power does not follow rules. The violence unleashed in Panchkula respected no boundaries. The cars that were burnt, or the houses that were damaged could have belonged to anyone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fear has a way of crossing boundaries quite suddenly. And power rarely allows itself to be confined to narrow goals. Surrendering to organised groups of people drunk on unregulated power is the surest way of constructing an aura of fear for oneself. A rule of law cannot prevail when those responsible for upholding it create organized structures to subvert it.

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