Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur on the Complexity of Violence and Fragility of Order in India

Shruti Rajagopalan, Amit Ahuja, and Devesh Kapur discuss the complexities of violence, law, and order in India.

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur about their latest volume, Internal Security in India: Violence, Order, and the State. Learn more about their latest volume and their other work here.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Today my guests are Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur. Amit is an Associate Professor of Political Science at UC Santa Barbara and Devesh Kapur is the Starr Foundation Professor of South Asian Studies at SAIS at Johns Hopkins University. They are the editors of the new volume, Internal Security in India: Violence, Order, and the State, published by Oxford University Press. We discuss the reasons for the declining violence in India, the role of liberalization in this trend, capacity of state and central police forces, the recent violence in Manipur, the role of technology, communication blackouts, and much more. For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit

Hi, Devesh. Hi, Amit. Welcome to the show. It’s such a pleasure to have you here.

AMIT AHUJA: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Declining Violence in India

RAJAGOPALAN: Your book is basically chronicling what seems like a very counterintuitive idea. It talks about the decline in violence, especially since the ’90s. This is violence whether you’re talking about homicide, terrorism, communal rights, electoral violence, labor unrest, caste-based violence and so on. You argue that the decline in violence is due to the building up of the state capacity with respect to internal security, mainly when it comes to union government forces.

In one sense, your book confirmed my basic mental model that India, when it comes to its governance, especially strong state capacity, tends to be extremely centralized and union government-heavy. On the other hand, it was a little surprising to me that even though you clock this trend really post-1990s, this is a time period when India saw this big move toward decentralization and devolution. States got a much larger share of the revenue split. We had whole new layers of government being added to the system like Panchayati Raj institutions, and urban local bodies and so on.

There was also much more decentralization on another front, which is toward markets with the end of License Permit Raj and opening up to global trade and so on. But the internal security forces don’t follow this trend of federalizing and decentralizing. They follow the opposite trend. Why do you think this is happening and what are the consequences of internal security forces both being so centralized at a time when everything else in terms of governance gets decentralized?

AHUJA: Firstly, let me just say, Shruti, this is a really neat observation. You’re absolutely right. We are seeing this. These two trends that you point to, it may actually look fairly paradoxical like, “What’s really going on here?” If you think about this in terms of the broader picture of what’s happening with some of the other central institutions, it’s not that paradoxical.

This is also the time when you see a period of coalition governments in the center. We are coming off this 30-year period after 1989, in which there are coalition governments, which basically means that state governments have a stake in the union government. They’re participating, and the center no longer looks like this dominant malicious actor out to get them.

There is that stake, number one. Second, there’s more partnership with the center and the executive is relatively weaker as compared to, say, what’s happened before or since that, or in the more recent period since 2014. In that sense, this is a time where the center is more trusted to intervene as a neutral actor.

For example, think about the election commission. The election commission at this time starts playing a pretty prominent role in governing state elections, it’s also the time when election violence comes down, but the reason the election commission is able to achieve these targets and bring down electoral violence is because it’s able to induct central troops into the electoral process, secure the polling stations and it’s a pretty substantial intervention. It happens with the willing participation of state governments because these are seen as neutral forces.

In that sense because this is a movement of coalition governments, weaker executive, the center, in terms of its ability to provide assistance to states, has a freer hand, and the states are more trusting of the center. It’s not always an easy process. There are coordination issues, there are some things which don’t work well because of this kind of coordination.

Think about, for example, how we’ve responded to the left-wing insurgencies because that required a lot of coordination across states and that was not always forthcoming. Again, I’ll say there have been challenges also, but on the whole, the center is more trusted and its intervention is allowed and is willingly accepted by the state governments. Devesh?

DEVESH KAPUR: Just to step back a bit, we situate violence within the larger context of order, and what we argue is that disorder in India has declined, one of its manifestations being a decline in different types of violence. Now, the role of the central forces is only one part of it. When you think of a major part of disorder in India or major manifestation which is riots, riots on a per capita basis, at least as per official data, have declined to a 50-year low.

Now, if you look at the causes of riots in the past, labor strikes was one, student disorders. By the late ’80s, there were roughly about 10,000 incidents a year, about a fifth of which were violent. Now, these two have declined very rapidly in the past 20 years, and the causes of those are very different. We know that unions are much weaker, the labor movement is much weaker, so that’s one.

Students, it’s because much of higher education has shifted to private. When you are paying a lot of money for your fees, et cetera, you are a little more reluctant to shut things down. It is possible that liberalization also means students are more oriented toward jobs, et cetera, so this is not helpful. We don’t know exactly why, right? Homicides for instance, we believe but we can’t show in the book, is because violence, caste violence has declined, in particular, especially in rural India, where it was very widespread because the lower castes are much more empowered. The way the upper castes could behave toward the lower castes a half-century ago, it’s simply not possible now.

Some of the factors are located in larger economic and social trends, if you want to call it the demand side so to speak. On the supply side, take one seemingly small [example], but it used to get a lot of headlines: hijackings, right? You remember Indian Airlines planes would be hijacked to Pakistan and so on, so forth, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. There hasn’t been one in this millennium.

Now, it used to be that the security force in airports used to be provided by state police. They were not very competent, not well trained. At some point in the ’90s, the whole security of all the airports was taken over by a central armed police force called CISF, which was specially trained. You see exactly the same thing in the U.S. After 9/11, the TSA was formed, which is now the Department of Homeland Security, which has become a huge federal agency, in part because of the large number of employees of the TSA. There you see a very clear link between a growth of and use of a central force and a decline in a particular type of violence.

Impact of Liberalization

RAJAGOPALAN: When I was thinking about all the events post-1990, one big one is, of course, liberalization. You touched upon both demand- and supply-side factors, but what is the exact mechanism, you think, through which the post-liberalization economy played a role? In my mind, one possibility is that the revenue that could be raised by the state dramatically increased because of the economic growth post-reforms. Then it could invest much more in capacity building.

The other possibility, which you talked about in the case of student unrest especially, is that certain kinds of violence, now the opportunity cost is just too high. That doesn’t happen. Another possibility, for instance, is that the economy shifted, especially when it came to large-scale manufacturing, from labor toward capital, especially the IT sector and things that took off post-liberalization. That switch automatically reduces the power of labor and reduces possibility of labor unrest.

There’s another fourth possibility in my mind, which is that private security forces which provide a bulk of the—not the kind of law and order that you alluded to, but sort of every day against theft, against vandalism, maybe a little bit against homicide when it comes to very high-profile people like bodyguards and so on. Largely, it has this impact of stepping in for what is actually typically a state role. This is also a post-liberalization trend. Is there a single mechanism? Are all of these factors, and if all of these are factors, which one do you think explains what’s going on best in this trend?

KAPUR: See, order and violence are just, Shruti, very complex phenomena. The motivations vary from individual to group to larger structural forces.

It’s clear that the state has stronger growth, stronger fiscal base. State has more resources. Very simple thing, for instance, the fact that police firings have dropped sharply. Now, in the past, if there was a mob, there would be a small police outpost, and the police would panic because they would be overwhelmed and they would open fire because you could not get reinforcements there quickly.

There were no cellphones. Many police stations did not have telephones. You’ve written yourself about India’s telephone saga. There was something called police wireless, used to work sometimes, sometimes not. The police had very limited transportation available: jeeps, motorcycles, all of that stuff. That has really changed. The ability of the police to coordinate, to rush in reinforcements, all of that has sharply increased.

We see, for instance, just indicators of physical presence. The number of police stations per unit area in India has increased fourfold in the last 60, 70 years. The number of police per person has been broadly static. I’m talking of the civil police, not the central army. When you see things like vehicles, like communication and transportation equipment, that has really, really sharply increased.

What you see is the state capacity has increased. Clearly, as you said, economic reforms, the structural transformation toward services. We know worldwide that services labor is harder to organize than in manufacturing. The second is actually the decline of public enterprises. Public enterprises were where unions were often the strongest. Many of the strongest unions were in old industries like cotton, textiles in Ahmedabad and Bombay. Those industries really are a shadow of their former self. When you move from large mills to power mills, just right there you see the difficulties of organizing labor. I think what we try to show is this is a complex phenomenon. There isn’t a single reason for it in different aspects or different facets of order and violence when we see—the last point is just economic growth has been healthy.

If you remember, the big growth in disorder in the ’70s was because India really stagnated amidst strong inflation after the first oil shock. Inflation has been broadly more moderate. There haven’t been severe economic shocks till COVID and growth has been pretty steady. Maybe not spectacular in the last few years but undoubtedly steady.

AHUJA: I just wanted to add a little twist to this conversation, going back to what Devesh was saying, I know we’re talking about the demand and supply. Let me just talk about one form of violence and disorder that we look at in our volume, look at insurgencies. Now, you do see an explosion of insurgency violence during the same period which we identify as the liberalization period.

The Punjab insurgency is happening in the 1980s, it backs up in the early ’90s. Late ’80s, the Kashmir insurgency takes off. Then there’s violence in Assam in the northeast. Then there is, of course, the left-wing insurgency in central India. The one thing that you see straight away is the state police forces, which are your first responders, are overwhelmed very quickly. That requires the central forces to go in.

If you think about the resources required here, these are in some ways for the central government net outflow of resources. These are states where you are basically sending in troops for long durations. You are building infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools, providing other kinds of support to these state governments. There’s a lot of resources that are being spent. There, I think, the liberalization aspect is fundamental. As Devesh pointed out, there’s economic growth. That basically just means that the state has more revenue, more resources to work with and that definitely matters.

Where it also matters, Shruti, is if you think about, and we discussed this in the book, is if you think about India’s economic heft in the region, that changes. That begins to change our relationships with our neighbors, and in certain cases, that is essential to winding down some of these insurgencies because where are these insurgent camps located? They’re located in the neighborhood.

If you think about our relationship with Bangladesh, Bhutan, our economic heft has been responsible there and has given us leverage to wind down some of these insurgencies, and again, as if that continues to grow, then this factor is very much in play.

Ghettoization and Fear

RAJAGOPALAN: On this, there is also a little bit of a substitution effect that you’ve been alluding to. Devesh, you said that when it comes to student unrest, students are now increasingly in the private sector institutions where you’re paying a lot of fees, plus they’ll throw you out and if you create a bit of a racket or a mess, this kind of collective unrest doesn’t take place, you might have isolated incidents.

The same thing happens with labor. Either there’s a substitution toward capital or a substitution toward private sector versus public sector, and there’s also a huge substitution in terms of pushing labor out into the informal sector. Now, there’s another kind of substitution that is taking place when it comes to things like communal riots, which are at best or second-best equilibrium, or according to me, a much more perverse equilibrium, which are phenomena like ghettoization.

I mean, ghettoization is a major response to riots. It’s not ideal, but on the one hand, it does reduce a certain kind of communal violence because there is much more strength in groups. On the other hand, it leads to other kinds of consequences, which may also reduce violence, like female seclusion or other kinds of consequences like lower access to public goods, lower access to education, which also means that those were the spaces where violence was mediating the question, and now because of seclusion, there is lesser violence.

How do you view the decline in communal riots as an outcome of better state capacity vis-a-vis better communal relations or perverse consequences like more ghettoization and so on?

KAPUR: Shruti, first, communal violence was at its peak in the ’80s till 2002, which was the Godhra riots, and early ’90s, if you remember, there were the Mumbai bomb blasts. They were all large phenomena. What you see after that is not a decline, but more of a plateau where almost you have chronic low levels. You continue to have incidents. Lynching is a good example of this, which is more akin to terrorism.

See, terrorism, the number of casualties is actually small. The point of terrorism is to sow fear. The point of lynching, and this worked on the American South when lynching was big in the ’20s and ’30s and so on, the whole point was to sow fear, is to keep the minority group—to send a message: “Clearly, this is where you belong.” Ghettoization does the same thing, something similar. It makes them feel that you’re not an equal.

It really does create two types of citizenship. One for the majority, one for the minority. What we write is that the absence of violence is not the absence of fear. You can reduce violence, and as we know, authoritarian and totalitarian governments in many of them, there’s very little violence because the state is so hegemonic, so powerful. Violence is really by the state, not by other actors. That doesn’t mean that in those societies, there’s an absence of fear.

I think what we argue is that we believe that this decline in communal violence or now this plateauing is, at least our interpretation, is there’s really increased fear. It’s sown doubts in the minds of minorities about equal citizenship in very pernicious ways.

RAJAGOPALAN: Just to push back a little bit on that, I completely agree with you, but one of the things that has also changed, which you do note, is the scale of the violence. Lynchings, even though they sow fear and these incidents are supposed to shock and scare, they’re not very large in scale. The fact that they are low in scale, does that mean, on the other side, that there is genuinely a response from the state in reducing mob violence by majoritarian groups? Is that another way to think about it?

What I mean is there are two ways to interpret the low number or the plateauing number. One is there is some kind of a response from the state for really big events, and on the other hand, the state looks away for minor events, and then fear does the job of these events not scaling into something bigger.

AHUJA: Right. There is today—and people have talked about it—there is today technology that is available which can amplify the impact of a small event. If you’re thinking about riots or communal violence as a political project to sow fear or to send a signal, as Devesh was talking about, you really don’t need a large-scale event. Just because today the kind of technology that can spread fear very quickly and at scale is very different from the situation in the 1980s or even ’90s, so we are in a different world. That’s one side of the story.

Second, yes, you’re also right that the state actually does have a lot more capacity today to check violence. It can identify the source of violence, clamp it down very, very swiftly if it wants to. Oftentimes when we see violence, vigilante violence, whether it’s around elections, for example, what we saw in Bengal or what we’ve just seen in Haryana or in Manipur, if the state wants, it can intervene. It has the capacity today to intervene very swiftly. It’s not a capacity problem, the problem is elsewhere.

Finally, going back to what Devesh was saying, if you think about how this fear is sustained, the memory of violence in India hasn’t gone away, even as violence comes down. Because communities remember violence, they have their own memory, they sustain them because we don’t get reconciliation. We get control of violence when we arrive at the point of order. Violence can be controlled with state capacity. We don’t get reconciliation. We don’t get justice.

As a result, the memory of violence persists. The infrastructure for producing that violence also persists. These groups are around. For example, you talked about the informal economy and how labor’s getting pushed in. You could have somebody who’s a mechanic in the informal sector in daytime and the evening is part of a vigilante group.

Those things are there because, again, scholars have pointed out that there is a dignifying effect that vigilante groups provide. They empower people. There are people who are drawn to these groups for good reason. That infrastructure persists, the memory persists and that keeps that fear alive. In some way, given grievances, given triggers, what stands between large-scale violence and order is actually the state and state capacity. As I said, that state capacity today is substantial.

KAPUR: I just wanted to add that when we think about order and violence, I do think that between ability and intention, the state’s ability has dramatically improved, but its intentions continue to be murky. I am pretty convinced that, for the most part, if substantial violence persists in any part of India for more than 24 hours, the state is culpable. The state has decided to let it continue. It has given instructions not to intervene in any large scale. If you think of the violence that occurred, the communal violence in Haryana recently.

Now in the early ’90s because of growing communal violence, a special force was created in the Central Reserve Police Force, the CRPF, called the RAF, the Rapid Action Force. Precisely meant to come, move and to diffuse these situations rapidly. There’s a base of it nearby. It could have been there within 12 hours, but it was not. I think these types of violence clearly have political patronage.

The other, to add to what Amit said, and going back to our earlier conversation on economic liberalization, the one thing economic liberalization did not do was to provide substantially good jobs. Unemployment in youth and underemployment is widespread. Thanks to everyone having a smartphone, et cetera, everyone’s aspirations are much greater than their ability to meet those aspirations, given the quality and quantity of jobs that are out there. There’s always an available mass of young men, and it’s always, almost always, young men who can be marshaled for whatever of these projects. That pretty much is across states.

Recent Violence in Manipur

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to take another recent example of the murkiness of the intention, is Manipur. On Manipur, in one sense, this is a multidimensional problem. It’s been a conflict that’s not new, it’s gone on for decades at this point. There is another element to this, which you have written a lot about, Amit, which is the violence between ethnic groups or contestation between ethnic groups. In this case, there was an additional complexity of an OBC group [Meiteis] wanting to be relabeled constitutionally as a scheduled tribe group.

In addition to that, you have a layer of violence that the state just refuses to step in and diffuse. In terms of what’s happening in Manipur, for most Indians, it feels like this just came out of the blue and it’s very new because it’s the first time these kinds of events have been reported at this scale in the national news. They’ve been spreading through social media, and the images are quite horrific. To you, what is new in the Manipur violent conflict now from what has been happening in the region several decades ago on and off? What is a past legacy that has just continued in that region?

AHUJA: Let me just touch upon what is the same and what is the continuation of the legacy. This conflict between the Kukis and the Meiteis has been around. Of course, the Nagas are also a component of this conflict there. Now, if you think about the conflict because of categorization or demands for recategorization, we’ve seen this. Just think about the Vanniyar agitation in Tamil Nadu, the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan, the Jat agitation in Haryana. We’ve seen this for state benefits.

What’s happening here, in that sense, you could say, we see something similar. These conflict lines have been there in that region when it comes to ethnic conflict. Where things are different is in terms of just the level and the swiftness with which ethnic cleansing has happened, given state capacity. In the past, one could argue that the state capacity was restricted. Today, there are better roads, more troops, information travels much faster.

This could have been checked and more decisively at a much earlier stage. Once the breakdown happened, then all bets are off. Again, if you think about what happens to the first responders, go back to Haryana. Once the police force cracks, then central troops have to come in. That’s what happened here. The police force was divided. It turned completely partisan, and then the central forces were put in.

The fact that armories were looted and it was done with such ease, that is a very disturbing sign. Again, just the ethnic cleansing, because now what the central forces are doing is basically carrying out a peacekeeping operation. There are two kinds of problems that central forces have dealt with in this region: counterinsurgency and peacekeeping. There is experience for that.

The fact is that today we are reliant primarily on the central forces to do this job. It’s a difficult task because we have already seen that one particular group is raising questions about the neutrality of some of the central forces. Assam Rifles, for example, has faced these allegations. Then that creates new kinds of problems because who is beyond the central forces, right? If these are your last ultimate resource[s] to turn to, who comes after that?

In that sense, this is very tricky, and it’s a complicated situation, but what is also new, and is worth thinking about is, when was the last time that we’ve had an incident of northeast violence? Because violence in northeast and widespread large-scale violence in northeast has been around for a while, but when was the last time that it took center stage in national politics this prominently? There is something to be said about that. I don’t know if you want to call it a silver lining, but the fact is that northeast matters.

It is taken seriously in national politics, and it ought to be because of just the investments the central government has made in making that region better connected, and the Look East Policy is not just on paper. There are very high stakes for India, India’s foreign policy in that region, and those are anchored in the northeast. And these fires, once they start in one state, can spread very easily to another state in that region.

KAPUR: Shruti, just to add, one other complicating factor, which played into this in complex ways was what’s been happening in neighboring Myanmar. The collapse over there has meant that you’ve both had migration from Myanmar as well as a sharp increase in drug smuggling. Now, the drug economy, as we know, has a political economy where many state actors are also involved. Smuggling cannot occur without at least some sort of complicity, even of the security forces.

I feel very strongly that this was a spectacular failure of the Indian state. This degree, it took a quarter-century of hard work by a range of actors to bring down violence in the northeast, very sharply. In one stroke, it was overturned. Now, northeast is one place where the home ministry’s intelligence bureau (IB) has pretty wide presence. That’s the nature of the IB, that it should be much more. Why it was so unable to give out information about what might unfold?

Now, if you are using the IB to go after political opponents or to look at which academic has written what paper, then obviously, you’re not focusing on what’s more important. Second is, as Amit said, the fact that police armories were looted so easily is a real failure of the police. What is troubling is there have been no consequences for the chief minister who completely abdicated his constitutional role, who should have been fired immediately, but has kept on. There’ve been no consequences of the home ministry, which also failed spectacularly.

The other troubling part, Shruti, we had terrible riots in Delhi in ’84. Four decades later, India is still facing the consequences, as we know, in protests in U.K., Canada, Australia. Something like this has left such deep wounds that it’s going to leave a mark for a long, long time. And it’ll vitiate India’s ability to build the Trans Asian Highway, to do the infrastructure leg for Look East because, at one stroke, it just was a spectacular failure.

RAJAGOPALAN: I agree with you that it’s a spectacular state failure, but the second part of the question is, is it a spectacular political failure for those who are involved? What are the politics of letting the state fail to grab a different prize, perhaps an electoral prize, which is easier to grab because there has been ethnic cleansing or displacement of 50,000 to 100,000 people and so on? Is that what is happening, or is this just plain incompetence and one shouldn’t read into plain incompetence, other intentions, and other kinds of strategies?

KAPUR: I at least don’t think it’s plain incompetence. I really don’t think so, it’s just that. Clearly, as I said earlier, when violence of this scale for this long continues, it is not about ability, it is also about intention.

RAJAGOPALAN: Is this also a function of the fact that India has never had a very strict or singular doctrinal approach when it comes to insurgencies or ethnic conflict in the border states? It’s been a very flexible approach, depending on the context, depending on the group in question, depending on the state in question and the state capacity and so on. Is this also a result of that, that this has always been a place where there’s been a lot of room for flexibility and this is the consequence of not having strict doctrines to bind the state when these kinds of situations happen?

KAPUR: I would say one could go the opposite; it’s that very flexibility that allowed—look, let’s face it, the northeast is a very complex view. Anyone who thinks that there’s some simple answers, you do something to accommodate one group, some other group feels it’s been slighted or it’s been at their expense. Many of them think that these are zero-sum games.

Therefore, the ability to have a degree of flexibility, not to have a very rigid approach, to have maybe frameworks, but work within those frameworks with a great deal of flexibility has, I would argue, allowed the central government to find accommodations in multiple ways, in different ways across the region, which has helped bring down the violence. I at least don’t think that a rigid doctrinaire approach is helpful or would have been helpful in this case, but Amit might have a different view.

AHUJA: No, I actually agree with you on this. Shruti, your observation that India has dealt with conflicts in different regions with different strategies is absolutely correct. In some ways, as Devesh says, that flexibility is required for a country as diverse and large as India is, and given the complexity of the issues in different regions. That being said, there are still certain general principles that apply, which is that if you pick up the gun against the Indian state, the consequences of that are pretty bad.

The accommodation the Indian state has shown, it ranges very widely, and in fact, the state has been very accommodating in some ways. For example, in northeast, there’ve been groups that have been allowed to remain and persist as armed groups, even though their weapons are under lock and key. That arrangement has to be verified. The danger, for example, in this region is that a lot of those agreements are under threat when violence begins to spread.

To say, “Well, maybe we should not have entered in those agreements,” that would be difficult because the fact is that those agreements have brought down violence and order has persisted for a long duration as a result of these agreements. They may look strange, but they have worked. The Indian state has been very deeply involved in arriving at these arrangements, maintaining that flexibility and also ensuring that the spirit of those arrangements is respected.

RAJAGOPALAN: On the Manipur question, one thing that genuinely surprised me was, when I saw the video coverage, of how militarized and sophisticated the equipment is in the hands of nonmilitary groups, which is the individual warring communities in this instance. We’re talking about machine guns. We’re talking about special cameras and surveillance equipment. Of course, there’s all sorts of grenades.

I believe there are drones, though I am not 100% sure if this is misinformation of WhatsApp or actually genuinely there is some drone surveillance across different groups. This seems to me a slight departure from how things have been in the past because the Indian state, even actually state-level police forces, have always found it in their interest to make sure that even when they look the other way, it is for all sorts of other corrupt activities, but never when it comes to very high-technology arms and surveillance material because it directly undermines them; it could lead to loss of their life and so on.

Even Indian central forces and state forces have always been very personnel-heavy, and not very capital-heavy, though that might be changing now. Has this change always been taking place and we just didn’t know about it in the media, or is it new? Has it got to do with the collapse of Myanmar and the drug trade with which comes very sophisticated equipment to protect the value of the drugs that are being smuggled? What exactly is going on in this region that this has become such a sophisticated military operation in nonmilitary hands?

AHUJA: Look, I think we are in the area of speculation here simply because there’s a lot of this information, which is murky, we don’t have actual facts. Let’s just work with what you’re saying. Look, this particular region has a sphere of conflict. Myanmar, and the conflict there in terms of if you look at weapon markets, if you look at the flow of weapons systems, all these things are available, and they can be procured, brought across the border easily.

The second aspect of this is that the armories that were looted actually did have sophisticated weapons. Just to give you a sense of what may actually be going on is if you look at the ones that have been returned a lot of cases, sophisticated weapons have been returned because they don’t have the ammunition after a point. That tells you that a lot of this is not, fingers crossed, that deep-rooted.

The availability of those weapons is there, and the fact that, you’re right, monopoly over violence was shared so easily by the police forces. That is really worrying because once these are out, these weapons systems are out, and under the control of people that there are not state forces, then it can go in all kinds of direction. At this moment what has really happened is that because the police forces have split, and they’ve identified themselves with a particular ethnic group, once you’ve turned partisan then—this is exactly what happened during partition violence. The police forces just completely broke down, and they added to the problem instead of solving it. This is the problem that we are confronting in the region at the moment.

KAPUR: Just to add, I also am not absolutely sure on where the veracity of the news about the weapons and where they are coming from. Let’s say they are there, even if they were looted, or they were smuggled in, over a few months, you can begin to get a control over them simply by cutting off the supply of ammunition. The fact is, and this is the one dirty secret about the northeast that many of the police and security forces are also involved in smuggling rackets.

There is a murky political economy. A security economy has evolved there precisely because there’ve been security forces for so long over there. It’s the analog of the aid curse in the development literature. The northeast is flooded with central money. In per capita, in work I’m doing with Arvind Subramanian, we show it’s just a complete outlier.

All these sorts of economic factors we talked about that could be bringing down violence in the rest of India, they’re much less at work in the northeast. Easy money is easier to make in the northeast through all these semi-legal, illegal rackets, this, that. Basically, everyone is involved. Now when you throw in this, it just makes reconstituting state authority harder.

RAJAGOPALAN: Isn’t that part a break from the past? Because my view of India’s security forces, both at the state and the union level was even when they allow human trafficking, drug trafficking, all sorts of other things—pre-liberalization, of course, it was very difficult to bring in very sophisticated arms from abroad because those areas were tightly controlled.

KAPUR: Yes and no. If you remember the Bombay blasts—all of those, because—

RAJAGOPALAN: They came in through the water.

KAPUR: —pre-liberalization, the smuggling rackets—

RAJAGOPALAN: Smuggling was big.

KAPUR: —were already developed. RDX was brought in and found.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, by silver smugglers and so on. Exactly.

But what I mean is that the state and the central forces always saw it in their interest to clamp down on that because they were always outgunned. Is this a bit of a break from the past where the state forces and the central forces just decide to be part of this or at least be complicit in some way? They are no longer fearing that they will be outgunned or something fundamental has changed in this particular instance?

KAPUR: I’m skeptical. I would be skeptical that they have deliberately allowed this, the smuggling part. The looting of the armories is clear. On the smuggling of heavy weapons, I think the state [and the forces] have always seen it in their own self-interest. Drugs is different, that’s money. Guns, in this way—and as you know, if you see the stories in Mexico and Central America, drugs going to the U.S. and guns going back and how it has sharply increased horrific levels of violence.

It’s plausible, but I don’t want to say because I don’t know the facts here, whether something like that could be happening, or at least a weak element of that might be happening. Of course, there could be rogue elements, but let’s leave out that. But as a matter of policy, I’m pretty sure, no.

AHUJA: I just want to add to that. Shruti, the fact is that some of the best commentary I have read on Manipur, especially forward-looking, like how do we fix this, has actually come from police officers and that is telling, that tells you. Again, we have the smarts, the capacity, primarily coming out of experience to understand, comprehend what’s happened and look at possible solutions.

Go back to, for example, look at the places where things just where the state breaks down even if it’s for a brief period. In Punjab, there was a time when the Punjab police forces—the morale collapsed. We see that in Kashmir. In both those places, police forces had to be rebuilt and something similar would have to be done here. That’s why I am very skeptical to think that there is—there are local problems here.      

We’ve had these experiences in the past and with help, those local police forces have then been rebuilt. It takes a long time. That’s the real challenge. It takes a very long time to do that, but I’m not persuaded that there is an intentional strategy of empowering groups at the expense of a state.

Communication Blackouts

RAJAGOPALAN: Even if it’s not intentional, if that’s what’s ended up happening because in some way everyone has lost control of the situation. I want to ask you about another thing in the time period that you’re studying, which is the increasing use of communication blackouts. Now this is unsurprising because if we’re talking before the ’90s, we barely had phones. Now of course, we’re talking about the internet era. There is a very deep penetration of cellphones and smartphones across India and the explosion of social media misinformation and regular information put together.

We saw that when 370 was revoked in Kashmir, the first thing that came along with it was a communications shutdown. We’ve seen that in Manipur, it went on for several weeks. In Haryana recently, in a place like Gurgaon, which is so connected to the capital city and is the hub of all things internet, so to speak, we saw the same kind of communication shut down. The ostensible reason for this always that it’s going to reduce violence?

Especially mob-driven violence, because the communication lockdown means that information, misinformation can’t spread as fast, people can’t coordinate, which means it’s easier for state forces to make sure that violence doesn’t scale. That is the ostensible reason. According to you, do communication lockdowns help restore order or do they delay restoring order? Or not just delay, they actually complicate and increase the number of fatalities and brutalities because information can’t get out and so on?

KAPUR: We clearly see sort of a dual track on the technology front. One is there’s an explosion of CCTVs. Major cities have just sophisticated control rooms with tracking of roads, all of that. That’s very much of an urban, large—the Hyderabads, and so on. The second is this part, right? Which is, and Amit had earlier said, we are in a different world in the scale and speed with which misinformation can travel. Frankly, as far as I’m aware, we just don’t know the effects.

I think at the intuitive level, you can see a panicked police force would say, “Look, let’s try and at least curb the growth of this misinformation while we get things in order.” This is the pre-’90 era. Now what is happening is, as you know this government, to give it its dues, has really pushed hugely for the digitization of a host of public services. Many states are doing that, all sorts of things.

The more we move to a digital economy—take UPI, the Unified Payments Interface, which is a spectacular success—suddenly, you cut off the internet. It’s not just Gurgaon’s ability to service New York banks, but it’s the ability of the local guy just to take money for his shop because you’ve now said no cash. You’ve said it’s all digital, and that for a few days for a local grocer is a big deal for livelihoods, right?

The implications of cutting off now on the economy are much greater because now it’s no longer just the elite that is dependent on digital. It’s the ordinary person who has been told to use Aadhar to avail of any public service. You can argue or otherwise whether that’s good or bad, but given that it’s there, if you cut off internet, you are also taking off that ability to use what you would ask this person to use, right?

Look, in almost all these things, and we write in our book, order it’s a bit like public health, investing in public health relative to investing in an All India Institute of Medical Science. Hospital costs 6,000 crores, it’s flashy, everyone wants one, all of that. Public health is water, sanitation, it sounds utterly boring, dreary. The fact is, the better your public health, the less the burden on your tertiary health system. In same vein, that old adage of prevention is way better than cure. The thing is to stop these things before they start, is not to allow, right?

The fact that one broadly knows the groups, the factors that drive it. If you allow certain groups to do a certain type of procession through certain type of localities, you know you are asking for trouble. If you allow that because of political pressure, and then there are riots and then you say, “Well, my God, this is happening, we have to cut off the internet,” well, that’s what you have to face then.

AHUJA: I think Devesh is absolutely right about that. If you think about the issues that we discuss related to the police forces in the introduction as well as the chapter that Akshay Mangla has written, there is a clear issue that runs through experience here, which is that police forces are poorly trained. The kind of challenges that now they are beginning to face are of a different nature, especially when it comes to technology-related challenges. Things happen in real time, they happen very fast. The instinct because the force is so seriously upwardly accountable, not downward, but more upwardly accountable, is to just out of panic shutdown. And we don’t just see this in internet shutdowns related to violence.

You see internet shutdowns even when there’s an exam paper leak, you just shutdown the internet. Well, think about other things, how do we manage VIP traffic, we shut down the entire highway, and people are standing there for hours again, inconvenience, people who have to go to hospital can’t go to that. Kids can’t go to school, people are delayed for work. Again, just economic losses, there are inconveniences there. Protests in a designated area, the moment there’s even a slight threat of any disturbance, just shut it down.

Preventive detention, again there is something happening, okay, round up everybody who’s potentially dangerous, and either bring them to the police station or make sure they don’t leave their house. Again, the way we think about policing is very much rooted in this sort of systemic problem of how we train our police forces. How seriously do we look at their needs both in terms of not just the training, but also just their well-being and how the police forces relate not just to their political masters, but to the public they serve? Their downward accountability aspect is missing in the place and that then produces these kinds of responses.

KAPUR: To add to that, I think, Shruti, as you know well, civil liberties in India has never had the strongest of champions. Many of these things undermine civil liberties in different ways but to the extent that it’s not civil liberties, per se, is not as big a deal in the sense of worth protecting, as in some other democracies in the West, you don’t get that pushback from that ground as well. I think in doing this work, what really struck us is just how much burden the ordinary policeman faces. There are 12-hour shifts. When there’s a riot, 12-hour shifts at 43 degrees Celsius out in the open. Seven-day weeks, they don’t get leave. It’s a hard life and if we say they act brutally is because we have brutalized them.

Less than 1% of the police budget is spent on training. Virtually, constables, once they join, they have some training. After that very little training, because we don’t think it matters. As technologies change, society is changing, the economy is changing, public institutions need to adapt and change as well. I think on this, at the heart of it is a political problem, because no political party, and I emphasize, no political party, has the least interest in having a competent, autonomous, independent police force.

Why Are State Police Forces So Broken?

RAJAGOPALAN: On this, this also links back to some of your other work, Devesh, on just state capacity, both what is lacking and in terms of building. You’ve written that Indian states have “abdicated their constitutional responsibility on law and order.” One part of it, of course, is the fiscal outlay, which is a big part of it. The other is, as you said, India is extremely under-policed if we think in per-capita terms, especially when we think about law and order.

If we remove VIP bandobast [traffic arrangements] from the policing activities, and we just think about everyday regular law and order, it’s very under-policed, and they’re extremely overworked. Now, in terms of incentives, we’ve had law commission reports and every expert commission report on this. What is an appropriate model or framework to think about Indian state-level police forces?

One part is fiscal, we understand that that needs to be built, one part of it is personnel, but just in terms of incentive structure, what is the way to go in this direction? Because, as you’ve just talked about, both you and Amit, this has upstream consequences for all sorts of things from riot management to insurgency management to when the state does its job, maybe the central government forces don’t have to step in, and so on.

KAPUR: Shruti, I have to confess, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I’m at a loss. Because, as you said, everything that has to be said has already been said in countless reports, literally from the ’60s on police reforms. I don’t want to say nothing has happened. Clearly, things have changed, but nonetheless, it’s been a hard slog. I mean, take one thing, which is not there in our book, but traffic accidents.

Now India has one of the highest, something like 150,000 if I remember the number, road traffic fatalities. Why? We sharply increase the number of vehicles massively, we’re building highways. More people drive further and faster. First, we did not improve the training of getting a driver’s license. A car in the hand of an inexperienced driver is a lethal weapon. The usual, you can drive your way, you can get your license through this way or that way, we didn’t do much there.

Then the other is we’ve hardly increased relative to the increase in vehicles, the number of traffic policemen. It’s a very simple thing. Just traffic policemen in other countries, you hand out speeding tickets, make them expensive. That is a reasonable incentive that brings down—most countries know that’s a way, and in fact, you can recover the additional cost of the policemen solely through the additional fines. And of course, the big collateral societal benefit of bringing down road fatalities, it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t.

The interesting thing is it doesn’t happen in almost any state, and we know states are controlled by all sorts of political parties. Why? I wish I could give you an answer. Now traffic police, unlike say CID or armed police, it doesn’t really affect a politician’s interest either. It’s not that the traffic police will not allow the politician what she or he wants to do in any case. It’s not a net increase on your budget expenditure as well if you’re smart about it.

You’re seeing, because one, these car accidents, all of that, whole families get affected. The ripple effects really spread over that. There is no outrage. As Amit said, they’ll try and ban some things on the highway, all of that. The things which you and your work emphasize the behavioral changes through changes in incentives, very, very limited.

AHUJA: Shruti, can I come in on this from a different angle?

Let’s go back to the way Devesh was describing the conditions that an average police constable has to work with on a daily basis. You can go to the Central Armed Police Forces. Again, their life is really tough. Then you can ask that question like, why? Why do people show up for this job? Because if you look at the casualties, they are telling in the following way—and we talk about this in our book. You may think that most of the casualties in service, while being in service, are happening on the front lines of whether you’re dealing with riots or you’re in policing or counterinsurgency. Actually, that’s not the case.

The bulk of the casualties are because of people are having heart attacks on the job, they’re dying of malaria, there are suicides, there’s fratricide. Only about 20%, 25% of these casualties are actually related to actually doing the work, active-duty work. The fact is that this is a labor-surplus economy, this is a job, it comes with benefits and people continue to show up.

That’s why we rely on labor more than capital here. Again, that has very serious perverse effects because if you think about it, if you’re going to deploy this many people and you’re going to have the coordinate search operations or the nakabandi (police checkpoints in Hindi), the more interaction you have between the police that’s brutalized, if you want to use that phrase, and the public, the more dissatisfaction you’ll have from these police forces.

No surprise, that when it comes to trust, they don’t enjoy public trust. That’s what the surveys tell us because they’re treated badly and then they take some of this out on the public. And so if you start relying more on technology, it may help there. Just in general, just a smarter police force makes their life easier and it potentially has an impact on how they deal with the different kinds of problems that they are faced with on a daily basis.

RAJAGOPALAN: I also worry about the second-order effects in the sense that if you just think about this in a very simple sort of Beckerian fashion, criminals are rational and they commit crimes and that’s based on the probability of them getting caught times the punishment or the penalty in question. Now we know that because the police are so understaffed and there’s no trust, we know that the probability of people getting caught is very low. What tends to happen is the tendency to keep increasing the punishments.

Now, if we’re talking about civil fines for traffic incidents or DUIs or something, that’s a lower-order problem and there’s corruption and so on. But now we’re talking about extrajudicial killing, we’re talking about demands of death penalty for lots of different kinds of crimes. Those things, again, impact civil liberties, constitutional rights. We don’t quite have the judiciary or the judicial capacity to navigate those kinds of problems.

In a very simple sense, having a huge gap or a vacuum and low-level police infrastructure, leads to these very scary second- and third-order effects which impact both institutional behavior and outcomes. I tend to worry a lot about those things also which are quite invisible.

KAPUR: Look, in some work we did, we looked at, if you want to call it, the supply chain. You have the police that takes in the FIR, then there’s the investigative branch. You’ll be surprised or perhaps not surprised that one of the highest vacancy rates in the police is in the forensic labs. Now, you can’t even do good forensics because you’re backed up, you don’t have expertise. Why you would not hire 100 more people in the forensic labs is just baffling.

Shruti, something we forget, there’s massive unanswered questions and a black hole on the public prosecutors. Who are they? How are they trained? How are they linked? How do they get those jobs? A very good police investigation can be blown up by a weak public prosecutor. Then we have the courts, which as you said are so backed up because the supreme court and high courts are only bothered about major constitutional things. Nobody cares about bread and butter.

How do you have just a well-functioning district court especially on the criminal side? All this is hugely amplified by the fact that in our representative institutions, state assemblies and parliament between a quarter and a third of our elected representatives have massive charge sheets against them.

The best way to avoid prison in India is to join and be elected. When the firefighter is also the arsonist, as they say, there’s an incentive compatibility problem. I think this is not something when we think about order that is solely about the police. It’s a larger systemic thing. It requires a will that can only come politically. Politically it’s so unlikely given who is in politics despite all the affidavits, despite all of that. Of course, the fact is that Indian voters, having this information, still continue to elect them. You have to also ask hard questions about the Indian voter as well.

Private Versus Public Security Providers

RAJAGOPALAN: No. The Indian voter on this has checked out, which is also a post-liberalization phenomenon that has made it easier. You have Arjun Jayadev and Paaritosh Nath’s chapter which is looking exactly at this, at the ratio of private security providers, public security providers and it’s five to one which is extraordinary.

KAPUR: It’s the 10th largest employer in the country.

RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. It’s one of those situations where of course they can’t do sophisticated law and order. We’re talking about theft and vandalism and low-level stuff but the rise of the gated community, the rise of private security, that’s also reduced the demand side or the claim-making end of this. People have completely lost any hope.

KAPUR: And especially the middle class. A good example, which I use, is the shopping mall. A mall is a privatized public space.


KAPUR: You can enter, but there are security guards. People feel safe there. People are willing to send their children or young, the daughters, to go there because they feel they’ll be safe. They’re not willing to send them to a public park. In the best sense, you could argue that private security can be complementary to public. At least now if the mall has private security, you don’t need the public security. In the worst is, it becomes a substitute. That’s when these problems that you’ve alluded to become bigger.

AHUJA: We’re looking at two interesting developments where the role of the private sector may change, and I’m in the realm of speculation here. One is that if the reforms that we are carrying out, for example, in military recruitment, through the Agneepath program, goes through, then you have a substantial amount, substantial size, substantially sized labor force, which is trained in violence by the military, and that will be looking for jobs.

Now, all of these folks are not going to be absorbed by other central forces or the police forces. There is an opportunity that certain conglomerates or corporations may decide to take up the private sector, where they start providing private sector security and scale it up not just to provide security at the mall, but even beyond, in the neighborhood, for example.

Again, remains to be seen, there are all kinds of regulatory issues here, but once you start creating that labor force that does not have opportunities, then this is one place where the private sector, we may see a private sector playing a greater role. I think the other place, and I think where I’m a little bit more certain that this is going to happen is, we often think about when we think about the state as the one that holds the monopoly over violence.

State also tries to monopolize control over information. What we are going to see, given the surveillance technology, and I’m thinking about this in a very broad way, that is available, the kind of tracking and data generation you can do on individuals, the state may not have the capacity to handle all of that information on its own. This is again where the private sector may end up playing a very large role. Then how the state regulates it will matter a lot because these technologies now are very much in play. The state would want this data on citizens.

Order in the Future

RAJAGOPALAN: What are you optimistic about at the end of this fantastic book volume that you have put together? It is a counterintuitive idea. We think because of the availability of information and so on, that violence feels like it’s everywhere, but it’s actually decreased. You’ve already pointed out it’s a complex and mixed bag. Reduced violence doesn’t always mean increased order. It could also be fear and so on. What has made you optimistic while going over this when it comes to India’s trajectory over the last, say, 20, 30 years?

KAPUR: First of all, the fact, as you said, contrary to what a lot of people and as you know, there’s a lot of really crappy stuff about India and violence out here, especially in the West. There are all these databases that people use which are just simply wrong. One is, I think there’s the optimism that comes from the manifest data that violence has been declining. That itself is a cause. It shows that there are ways in which the state, but along working with society, can produce better order that allows citizens to live more enriched lives. Order is not everything, but without order, it’s hard to do much.

The question is whether the nature of political incentives allows this to continue; whether we will have the wisdom to realize how important it is for these citizens that we have the capacity to do it; or whether short-term political exigencies will continue to rear their head. Because order, Shruti, is always fragile. It is always more fragile than we think. Just because it has come down, it doesn’t mean it cannot reverse course. That requires a certain sagacity, a certain wisdom on the part of the leadership of the country.

AHUJA: For me, I think, I agree. I think the reduction in violence, visible reduction in violence that people experience, the sense of security, safety that they feel has a clear and immediate effect on how they think about their life, about their opportunities, about their aspirations, their future. In many parts of the country that change has been so substantial. We are seeing that in the form of emergent economic activity. There is that aspect of it. Of course, the caveat here is that if you have order and you also then are creating or producing that order through fear—I’m not thinking about just the fear of violence, but I’m also thinking about the fear of the state—then in some ways that becomes counterproductive because what you have here is a remarkable opportunity given that you have an economy that has the growth momentum. If you’re going to then stifle that energy through fear, through state fear, that just defeats the purpose, and then this opportunity goes begging. The first part of that multiprong process is actually control violence. Bring it down, keep it down.

If you’ve achieved that and it’s come at a huge price for the Indian state, parties, political parties, political dispensations across decades have been involved in getting us to this point. Again, we must acknowledge what role different political parties, political actors have played in this process. The fact is that for this to turn into or produce the desired benefits, that fear of violence both in terms of fearing society as well as a fearing the state, that needs to go. I want to draw this distinction for one more reason.

We can fear the state. We can say some state institutions basically are acting coercively and they have gone beyond their brief. Those can be fixed because we’ve been there in the past and some of that can be reversed. State institutions, bureaucracies can be reformed and sometimes can be reformed and rebuilt quickly. Societies, once they crack, once they get polarized, rebuilding those takes a very long time. That is a truly dangerous thing to flirt with.

Making sure that social polarization does not get out of hand and—India’s diversity, religious, ethnic, there is just no dearth of diversity there, and therefore there is no dearth of fault lines. Remaining cognizant of what the possibilities of fires are and taking up an approach which doesn’t turn sparks into fires, I think that’s what is required because otherwise this opportunity will be lost.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I completely agree. Thank you so much for doing this. I hope to have both of you back to discuss your individual works. Amit, especially with you to talk more about Dalit social movements and electoral competition and how that has played out in different kinds of contestations. With, Devesh, so far, Devesh, I haven’t asked you to come because just the volume of everything you have written so far has been discussed frequently on this podcast but through your co-authors across multiple episodes.

KAPUR: That’s much better.

RAJAGOPALAN: One day I’ll climb that mountain and I hope you’ll come back and spend some time with you.

KAPUR: Maybe next year. There’s huge book with Arvind that I’ve been working on.

RAJAGOPALAN: Would love to have both of you back.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much. You both have been so generous with your time. This was a pleasure.

KAPUR: Thank you so much.

AHUJA: Thank you for the opportunity. Thank you so much.

KAPUR: Shruti, if you ever cross the river and come this side, let me know.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, very soon.

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app