July 30, 2023book reviewinternal securitynational securityrule of law

India is less violent than it used to be

Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur have put together a book that discusses the Indian Republic's success in reducing violence. But the success is tentative and conditional.

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Most of us rely on social media, television, newspapers and conversations with our friends to get a sense of what is happening in the world around us. News, however, suffers from a systematic negativity bias — the bad and the abnormal get more coverage than the good and the normal. In addition, our minds tend to confuse the frequency of news item with its actual prevalence. Then there are regular moral panics and outrage cycles, all of which end up giving us a distorted perception of the state of the world, often making us anxious, depressed and despondent.

Internal Security in India: Violence, Order, and the State (2023) is published by Oxford University Press.

That is why empirical studies are important, for data often tell a different story. A new volume edited by Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur surprises us with the conclusion that there has been a downward trend in most forms of violence in India since Independence, and especially in the past two decades. Internal Security in India: Violence, Order and the State shows that violence has declined across various indicators, in contrast to what’s happened in India’s neighbourhood, and in several developing countries where it has increased. Intentional homicides in India have declined since 1990 consistent with global averages, and when adjusted for population, India’s homicide rates are far below the United States, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa. Communal riots, caste killings, insurgencies, terrorism, electoral violence, labour unrest, hijackings and assassinations have all declined. Ahuja and Kapur argue that the great period of disorder grew after the 1967 elections for the next 35-40 years and has been ebbing since.”

I wrote this review in early May 2023, just as news of ethnic clashes was emerging from Manipur. We now know (in July 2023) that those have escalated into an ethnic war amid alleged connivance and obvious abdication by the state. In a way, the violence in Manipur is the kind of exception that strengthens the book’s argument.

This is surprisingly good news. The book has over a dozen contributors who comment on various types of violence, attempt to explain the reasons for the decline and discover the social costs of its achievement. But before reading their analysis, I had the opportunity to question the data Ahuja and Kapur used to arrive at the conclusion. Since a lot of the data is from government sources, had they accounted for underreporting? Since their conclusion stems from counting of fatalities, are body counts an accurate metric for measuring the prevalence of violence? Kapur argues that unless there is a change in the trend of underreporting, the underreporting does not change the trend. He also contends that while body counts will certainly miss serious but non-fatal violence, death tolls are the least worst indicator we have for the purpose.

The main argument of the book is that the Indian state, in its quest to establish order, is responsible for the reduction in violence. Specifically the growth in the numbers and capabilities of central armed police forces (CAPF) the army’s counter-insurgency capacity and the explosive growth of the private security industry over the past three decades has correlated with the reduction in violence. The weak link are the State police forces, which are underfunded, understaffed, under-equipped, poorly trained and led, although this appears to be changing.” This finding is consistent with Steven Pinker’s argument that the most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force.” It is to the credit of the Indian Republic that it has discharged its basic purpose relatively well. It is on this edifice of order that our social, economic and human progress is built on.

There are costs to this of course. We need not begrudge the fiscal costs of internal security, which in my view, is still underfunded given the scale of our challenges. No, the real cost is in terms of the citizen’s social contract with the state. How much of our individual liberty have we traded off for the security? The book notes that the Indian constitution privileges national security over individual civil liberties in ways that is uncommon for longstanding democracies.” Raeesa Vakil and Anubha Bhosle contend that there are numerous national security laws, weak oversight mechanisms, and judicial forbearance for human rights violations in the name of national security.” Furthermore, extra-judicial methods have widespread support both among the police and the public, and it is unclear if this is only because the justice system is perceived to be slow. The playing field is heavily tilted against the citizen, process is the punishment and errant officials face no penalties at all for mala fide actions.

In other areas, book shows that social norms have shifted too. Ahuja told me that the social acceptability of killing has changed, and there is growing disapproval of caste-related killing (but not so much about causing physical harm instead). Even so, he flags lynching as the only type of violence that has increased in recent years. Paul Staniland rightly warns that the impunity that political-party linked vigilante groups enjoy suggests that India’s gains in containing mob violence is tentative, fragile and reversible. Internal security lives from day to day.

To read about more things like this, you can check out my published raw notes and my massive archives.

Ahuja and Kapur offer us both hope and warning at a time when some of the old vectors of violence are resurfacing, especially in the northern and north-eastern states. We can be confident that the Indian republic is capable of quelling violence and establishing order, but we should be concerned that the manner in which does so can trigger new generational cycles of violence.

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