Imagine the Indian Army begins to conduct training camps to train all of us on how to use firearms to defend ourselves against foreign attacks. Imagine they provide booklets on how to make grenades that you could throw at invading soldiers. Imagine the army chief saying that our soldiers can’t be expected defend every single part of the country, overstretched as they are, having to go abroad on UN peacekeeping missions, helping census officials, conducting elections, delivering humanitarian relief and constructing buildings for events like the Commonwealth games. Would we buy this logic?
Yet, this is precisely what we are doing with respect to our police forces. In the face of rampant sexual harassment of women (let’s not trivialise these crimes anymore by calling them ‘eve teasing’) the Delhi police force has decided to rely on D-I-Y methods. It is training women in self-defence techniques, martial arts and handing out pepper-spray recipes outside schools and colleges. Some may see these measures as practical and pragmatic, but they should worry us deeply. For they represent an abdication of the State from its fundamental responsibility – using its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to ensure that there is rule of law.
The earliest Indian traditions view the role of the State as protecting its citizens from the predatory world of matsya-nyaya, the law of the fishes, where the strong prevail over the weak. The state, through the establishment of danda niti, the rule of law, ensures that the rights and freedoms of the individual are protected. Citizens surrender a part of their freedoms to the State, so that it may ensure that they can enjoy the rest. This deal is the fundamental premise in the world’s constitutions, including our own. In other words, we citizens have appointed the State as our security guard. It is absurd for the security guard to outsource the job back to us, for then, why do we need the security guard in the first place?
If we all need to learn martial arts and use pepper-sprays, why do we need the State? Yet, instead of demanding greater competence from the State – essentially demanding that the government does its job better – we are increasingly reconciling to its incompetence. Cities of the world that have low incidences of sexual harassment are unlikely to have high proportions of women with black belts in karate. They are, however, likely to have governments – including police forces, public prosecutors and courts – that do their job well.
“What’s the harm if the police ask women to learn martial arts?” you say. First, while it may be necessary for Indian women to fend for themselves as a practical matter, to the extent that our attitude resigns them to their fates, it marks a disgraceful collective surrender on our part. Second, the more we resort to private means of securing public goods, the more incentives we create for the government to get into all sorts of pursuits and businesses that it shouldn’t be getting in to.
The more we employ private security guards, drive our own vehicles, use our own generator sets, drink bottled water and, yes, do “tossing the scarf over the attacker’s neck and pushing him down with a handbag, pricking him with a hairpin or pen, hitting with shoes”, the more we allow the government to run soap factories, distribute alcohol, run airlines, railways, buses, taxis... the possibilities are endless. At another level, the same Government of India that can’t even provide water and sanitation (which, incidentally, the Indus Civilisation enjoyed) arrogates to itself the grand project of restructuring Indian society.
It also creates innumerable laws and regulations without regard to the true costs and consequences of enforcing them. The more time Mumbai’s cops spend checking if orchestras in the city’s bars have no more than four female and four male artistes, the less time they have for catching potential Kasabs.
The Bangalore police are asked “to prevent, prohibit, control or regulate any vocal or instrumental music, sounds caused by the playing, beating, clashing, blowing or use in any manner whatsoever of any instrument, (in) any premises of any trade, avocation or operation resulting in or attended with noise.” And how can the Delhi police go all out to protect women when they have to enforce the ban on plastic bags, look out for graffiti and illegal signboards, cigarette shops near schools, and protect the eco-system of the ridge area?
Assigning some of these jobs to the police might be justified, but only after they accomplish their basic duties competently. A government that can’t prevent women from being molested on the streets is unlikely to do better against criminals and terrorists. Whether it is karate for Delhi’s women or Salwa Judum for Chattisgarh’s tribals, we shouldn’t accept the government passing the buck back to us.
Unless we exert severe pressure on the government to do its job competently, we’ll never be able to close the divide between those who can privately acquire public services and those who can’t. And, there be dragons!
— Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review and a fellow at the Takshashila Institution