Does the state have a monopoly on violence?

The targeted kidnapping and beheading of a Jharkhand police inspector, almost certainly by Naxalites, is seen as taking the conflict to a new level. Chhattisgarh-based doctor Binayak Sen (whose judicial travails this blog closely followed here, here and here ) disagrees. In this interview with me, he argues that a) this level of brutality is not new, and b) Naxal violence is only a consequence of state violence. What I wanted to explore further is his insistence that state violence and Naxal violence are equally illegitimate. I pointed out that state violence against him at least had the check of a judicial process, lawyers, and finally bail. But the violence that the Naxals inflicted on the Jharkhand inspector had no semblance of ‘due process’. Binayak Sen replied that what the state had done to him was hardly representative. I’m sure there is an extensive body of research on this. Any political theorists out there — on the legitimacy of democratically-sanctioned violence?

Written by
Vinay Sitapati
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  • Max Weber's condition for an entity to be a state was to have a monopoly on violence. I think much of classic political theory deals with that, Gandhi and Tagore;s rejection of the state had much to do with its inherently violent nature. I'd be interested in hearing about how theorists have tried to reconcile this with say the American right to bear arms

  • "Violence is the last resort of the incompetent" – Salvor Hardin (From Asimov's Foundation series)

    Violence is only a means to achieve an end, both for the State and the Maoists. Either it is directly helpful for what you want to achieve or it is not.

    A strong State is not necessarily a violent State because it achieves its goals without having to always resort to violence.

    Likewise a movement or a rebellion is not a threat merely because it uses violence to achieve its ends. It is an immediate threat of course because it is using violence, but it will not necessarily reach its goals if it is only using violence to reach those goals.

  • I've found Walter Benjamin's essay 'A Critique of Violence' useful in understanding the typology of violence. Focusses on the use of violence as means and not as an end, for obvious reasons. He makes a distinction between law creating and law preserving violence – the founding of state / sovereignty can be through a violent act alone, and in order to police the boundaries of this state, violence is inevitable. Moreover, if the monopoly is not maintained, then the idea of sovereignty becomes meaningless. Within this framework, any violence used by a non-state actor, including citizen in ways not 'allowed' by the state i.e. private defence, for example, would obviously be considered illegitimate. This does not negate the earlier statement that the state is founded and maintained on a premise of violence.

    On whether violence can achieve justice, I believe there is an essay by Austin Sarat in a collection edited by him. I've forgotten the title unfortunately. 🙂