Nov 30, 2008

World - For a community-led role in counter-terrorism

Sreeram Chaulia

 As India haemorrhages from and mourns the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, a sense of despair and hopelessness is sinking into the national psyche. From every corner of the country, people are staring blankly at one another and wondering whether the dark night of random and indiscriminate violence aimed at innocent civilians will ever end. To use Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s phrase, terror-ravaged India is a “wounded civilisation” that is simply unable to concoct the right medicine for a phenomenon driving public insecurity and fear.

As one of the world’s oldest civilisations, India has the resources and genius to ensure human survival and societal preservation for ages. Had there been no respect for the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, India would never have acquired the status of what Jawaharlal Nehru called “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed.” At no point in history since Harappa and Mohenjo daro has India become barren, depopulated, evacuated or extinct.

The sheer continuity of habitat and social life that characterises India over aeons is a tribute to the live-and-let-live philosophy that permeates the ideational structure of this nation. While the political stage has seen scores of staccato entries and exits over centuries, the social sphere has shown a seamless resilience underscored by the values of tolerance and a balance between individual and community interests. The core strength of India has always been its social fabric and values rather than political unification under a single state, or flourishing economic growth. India illustrates the fact that statehood and wealth production are ephemeral, but society is eternal.

Societies with long experience of being knit together have reserves of trust and solicitousness that can serve as problem-solving institutions. Despite the alienating and individualising tendencies that have crept in due to the onset of urbanisation and integration into global capitalist nodes, India still possesses the treasured asset of ‘community’, which can come to its rescue when terrorist bombs and grenades are snuffing out any semblance of protection for citizens.

Thus far, the typical reaction in the media and among civilians themselves to every new terrorist outrage is to look up to the security establishment for clues, investigations, prosecutions and justice. This is understandable since the state apparatus bears the primary responsibility for protecting citizens and it has the force and legal appurtenances to go about the task of keeping law and order. In Max Weber’s language, the entity with the “legitimate monopoly over violence” is the state. When faced with the grave threat of terrorism, the state machinery will naturally be expected to be the first line of defence for citizens. But what is to be done if the state is incapable of delivering the public good of security despite repeat runs of the same diabolic horror of terrorism?

Armed vigilantism of the Salwa Judum variety in Chhattisgarh is not an alternative because of its heavy costs in terms of human rights abuses and misuse of delegated authority by anti-social and anti-national elements. Vigilance, as opposed to vigilante behaviour, is the rational and sane option. However, this term has been pushed in India into an individualistic frame, wherein each citizen is exhorted to be ‘vigilant’ in public places and ‘watchful’ about unidentified objects or suspicious actions. This narrow interpretation of vigilance is time-bound because it is implemented just after a violent incident or a terrorist attack, when the memory is fresh.


For vigilance to get institutionalised, it needs organisation and mobilisation at the community level. To reiterate, India’s unique selling proposition as a civilisation is social capital and social knowledge gathered at the grassroots. While many of us chafe at the excessive interference of ‘society’ in our personal lives, the fact is that community life in India is most vibrant and pervasive. What is happening in which particular household in our neighbourhood is often public knowledge because of a certain visceral curiosity and thirst to sustain community norms and values. Unconsciously, even those of us who detest ‘social pressures’ and meddling in private life, gather information about our environs.

In traditional societies, where the size of communities is so small that one knows everyone else, crime and violence are handled through the institution of ‘community self-policing.’ A set of designated residents who might enjoy public goodwill and good reputations would form neighbourhood watch committees and engage in constant monitoring and communication about untoward events or disputes that have the potential to flare up and destroy the peace. Interestingly, membership in such committees is voluntary and unpaid. The incentive to participate in self-policing is a mixture of individual and group interests which are under threat from, say, cattle rustlers, assaulters or crop stealers. Upon discovery of a crime or violation, the guilty would be subjected to a slew of penalties ranging from moral shaming to legal punishment.

Elinor Ostrom’s path-breaking book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990), offers dozens of examples of community self-policing from around the world that succeeded, even in the absence of a corollary state enforcement machinery. The logic of these cases is simple: people can find solutions to their own problems, provided they are aware of their inherent strengths as a community.

The time has come for urban Indians to organise themselves into neighbourhood watch committees through community consensus mechanisms to keep a steady eye on iffy or errant behaviour and share information among themselves and with point persons in the police and intelligence agencies. Moderation and patriotism are the twin ideal qualifications to staff these committees, which should operate within a designated territorial limit so that the concept of neighbourhood is not so outstretched that the project is unfeasible. Members should join out of genuine concern to prevent future terrorist attacks and maintain amity rather than for financial rewards. This will distinguish the committees from police informants and spies, who are paid for titbits of data.

For a voluntary community-based self-policing movement to emerge, Indians have to break free of the prisons of individualism and ‘what is in it for me?’ thinking. Criticising politicians and the ‘system’ is a facile and hypocritical approach behind which hides the narrow self-interest of citizens who want security to be handed to them on a platter without having to stir a leaf. The numerous social service organisations and institutions across India, which have popularised the voluntaristic model of action, have a big role to play in building community self-policing to prevent or at least reduce the likelihood of terrorists and their accomplices misusing the hospitality of our proverbial ‘galis’ and ‘mohallas’ (lanes and localities).

Cynics can pooh-pooh self-policing either as an airy-fairy daydream that cannot inspire enough Indians to make an honest attempt or as a completely inadequate defence against a terrorist monster that has no fixed local roots and plenty of foreign sponsors. But if ever there is a time for innovative and sober action, it is now. Civilisations that fail to act with savoir faire will end up like the dinosaurs.

(Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.)

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