Would you like to live in a society where young men have training and access to weapons? This is the fundamental question that the government’s latest Army recruitment scheme Agnipath compels us to ask. The question, and its answer, however, has been obscured by the fires raging across India. Yes, it’s also about India’s youth and employment but others have already weighed in on this.
The Agnipathscheme poses the greatest threat, in fact, to the Indian national State itself as it will disperse violence and weaponry back to the Indian social order. It will create more, not fewer challenges, to the State’s monopoly of violence.
Violence is the essential political question. Who gets to prosecute violence, and towards what end has defined the making of the modern age of the nation-State? The modern State emerged as the correct and sole author of legitimate violence.
Simply put, the modern State bled out internal strife or possibilities of social and religious violence while literally pushing violence to the borders where it is conducted in State uniforms. The simple but hard-won idea is that for societies to be free to flourish, internal peace is a pre-condition and as such, access to violence must be negated in every respect.
This passage to modern life created our era of national armies, based on loyalty, that replaced mercenary armies of princes, pirates, popes, and whatnot that were based on ultimately the ability to pay. The modern State makes social violence illegitimate but also, rather impossible. In short, wars between States, indeed even catastrophic World Wars are ethically wrong yet legitimate. But internal violence such as civil wars, are rendered as wars that only deplete order, are deemed illegitimate but above all, can produce no real winners.
Who wields the stick?
The primary social exception to the Indian State’s monopoly to violence remains the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). As the largest paramilitary volunteer body, it wields sticks in your neighbourhood. You might even approve of this and maybe are even a member. But you need to think about it a little bit beyond any passionate attachment to the RSS. That danda might turn on you!
Consider no other than the original Indian strongman Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. He ensured that the RSS was not dismantled in 1948 but cautioned that their danda in the social body had to be defanged and won over. For Patel, who forged the Indian State’s monopoly over violence, to be sure, their access to violence in society was unacceptable. This was because the evidence before him was overwhelming.
The lifting of the bans on voluntary paramilitary forces of both the Muslim League and the RSS in early 1947 had fuelled the civil war of Partition. New evidence also demonstrates that de-mobbed soldiers after the Second World War were active in the lethal spread of that civil combat that ushered in India’s freedom.
But banning the RSS was, for Patel, not going to be a lasting solution, it needed a change of hearts of the body’s members. If the Modi government is serious about a strong India, it would dissolve the RSS in its centenary year and cut off a competing source of violence to the Indian State. It will be a true tribute to its hero Sardar Patel. Though no writer himself, Patel was all too aware of India’s path to deep colonisation.
British Brutal India
India’s colonisation by the British was in large measure due to multiple sources of violence in the polity and society. By contrast, the State’s monopoly on violence has ensured the ascendancy and domination of the West even as it exported violence offshore to colonies.
With the loss of central Mughal authority, India became a society at war even though it was a commercial boom-time. Petty and not-so-petty-kings and big zamindars marshalled violently against one another for supremacy. The East India Company (from c.1750 -1857) aggressively manoeuvred through India’s decentralised but heavily militarised society. India’s loss of freedom to the British was not simply at the rather small battle of Plassey in 1757 when the Company Bahdur gained through that shameful victory the right to collect and spend taxes.
A major driver was the rise of middle castes and groups that created a new dynamic of a large market in military service plus the arrival of new paymasters. Within short years, regional magnates such as those in Awadh, and even sub-empires such as the Marathas were in debt to Indian moneylenders and commercial groups only to keep up the internal warfare. The East Company systematically and aggressively cut through this chase by getting first into business with the moneylenders while fuelling the wars that it finally took over.
By 1770, as the bugles of freedom and democratic revolution were raised in France and America, India became fully colonised and the East India Company became the largest standing army in the world. It became the supreme paymaster with easy access, thanks to slavery and spices, to the world’s silver at its disposal. Tellingly, from 1800 onwards, the Company turned its attention to de-militarising Indian society that included the large and wandering Indian warrior groups, including small rulers, tribal groups including the Bhils and Gosains, and militarised monks such as the gorakhpanthis. It focused on and pursued the prized wars for ultimate supremacy over the big two contenders to the Indian crown, the Marathas and the Sikhs, that were in effect also new warrior-states.
The year 1857 was the last hurrah of the standing order. Soon after that, the British Indian army was created on a strict pattern of recruitment and discipline based on detailed social engineering and that by and large exists to date.
By usurping and controlling but redirecting and centralising violent authority, the British Empire became supreme as India was fully de-politicised. For the next 100 years, Indians had no access to commerce or freedom but routinely waged and won wars on behalf of the British Empire. India’s founding fathers understood this all too well.
They produced a new and difficult compact that undid the Empire but crucially equated violent capacities with the Indian national State. You don’t have to read my book but suffice to say that the arch political antagonists Gandhi and Ambedkar jointly prosecuted a new and democratic compact that squarely addressed the political question of violence as it steered Indian society to nonviolence. Needless to say, and since Independence, there have been violent challenges to India’s order and with varying costs, the Indian State has by and large, prevailed.
But now, to have opened a scheme of temporary military recruitments where large numbers of men are trained to kill only to return to society after four years without the supervening authority and discipline of the State is to invite and open the door to civil war.
The exact motivations of this dramatic policy announcement are far from clear. Is the RSS the model of a new militarised society, one wonders? That it has been done without consensus or consultation is now an entirely predictable pattern for Narendra Modi’s style of leadership. It has already set large parts of India ablaze and that in itself serves as a red hot and clear warning.
Agnipath is an ember that will, without a doubt, ignite and could consume India. If not rolled back, be warned, every Indian will become vulnerable to violence.
Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)