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The 'privatisation' of public security

Criminal intimidation and extortion on a large and well-organised scale have become a fact of life in many parts of the country, today. The disorders that we, till a few years ago, believed could afflict Bihar alone are now breaching the privileges of our most protected metropolii. The pattern has been most visible in Bombay, with over a hundred organised crime-related killings in this year, but Delhi has also had its share of kidnappings, extortion and murder. Extortion—or the imposition of "taxes"—is also a common feature in every area of terrorist operations in the country. Unfortunately, the agencies of the state—overburdened, where they are not compromised, corrupt and themselves criminalised—offer little immediate hope of relief.

In the meanwhile, desperation rather than reasons of considered policy, appears to have spawned a range of proposals—both by governments and by harried citizens—to counter the growing menace. Of these, two of the more bizarre suggestions seek to shift the responsibility of resolution from the State to the citizenry.

The first of these is the increasingly vocal demand for, private "defence" initiatives. In Mumbai, associations of traders and, businessmen have floated the idea of a privately funded security force. The notion found an echo among medical professionals in Bihar after a doctor was gunned down for refusing to endorse fraudulent medical claims. A little over a year ago. when the arrest (in August 1997) of Ms Pranati Deka, the "cultural secretary" of the ULFA, revealed that prominent tea estates had been "funding"—or more accurately submitting to extortion by—terrorists, a senior civil servant in the State Government is reported, to have declared, "Major companies such' as Tata Tea and Williamson Magor have enough funds to raise a security force of their own," presumably implying, they, that the State was absolved of its responsibility to protect them.

Is this our vision of the future? Large corporate houses and associations of professionals and traders with private armies to defend themselves; and eventually, whatever they regard as their "Interests"?

Private security is, of course, already a rupees five hundred crore-plus industry. But What passes for "security" here is groups of low paid semi-literates who are paraded about in the neighbourhood park till they learn to march in step and salute all and sundry (more or less) smartly. They are neither trained nor can they be equipped to confront the organised crime operative or the terrorist. They rely overwhelmingly on the psychological impact of a visible uniformed presence, but have no other effective skills or powers to confront highly motivated and well-armed opponents. Moreover, the actual magnitude of the use of force permitted to them under present laws severely circumscribes their potential even if they were better trained and armed. Indeed, even the police operate under an extremely restrictive regime that permits use of lethal force only under the most extreme circumstances, and there is no possibility, of these powers being extended to private security personnel.

But when we start speaking of a security force capable of defending widely dispersed corporate, business or professional operations against highly motivated and well-equipped criminate, we are obviously not speaking of a few lathi or twelve-bore wielding chowkidars. We are speaking of a force that can match, if not outgun, the terrorists and the gangs; with capabilities to pursue, confront and capture militants and criminals. Under what circumstances would such a force have the right to kill? Would it have the right to detain or search? And who would monitor the exercise of these rights? We are in all this, only a step away from a regime of entrepreneur-warlords who would, in time, become a law unto themselves—even as the caste armies of Bihar are today.

A second proposal, fortunately, has as yet been more of an aberration than a sustained or popular demand, and its source was in the bureaucracy. It represents the flip side of the thinking that spawned the idea of private security forces, with the state seeking to abdicate its assigned role and shift responsibility, not merely to private citizens, but to the very victims of extortion. With governments failing consistently to establish the rule of law, it is only a matter of time before some other bureaucrat revives the idea behind the Assam Government's ill-conceived enthusiasm for prosecuting and punishing 'tea estates for "funding" ULFA on the argument that "breaking the nexus" between industry and terrorism was crucial if militancy was to be contained. It is, consequently, necessary to think this point of view through, not only because it is utterly wrong-minded, but also because it will prove to be entirely infructuous.

No one can claim that the breakdown of law and order in, say, Bombay is even remotely comparable in intensity to what prevails in Assam. Yet thousands of industrialists, entrepreneurs and even petty traders regularly pay protection money to organised criminal gangs and to thugs from local political parties. Are we to conclude that they are all aiding and abetting organised crime? How are we to grade the sense of subjective insecurity and the range of defensive actions it justifies? It could not for instance, be anybody's case that the board of directors at Tata Tea sympathised with ULFA's political goals and that they criminally conspired to further these. There is as much of a nexus here as there ever can be between terrorists, kidnappers and organised criminals on the one hand, and their victims, on the other. In an ideal world, of course, each citizen would refuse to submit to extortionist lawlessness, irrespective of the risks involved. Unfortunately, we live in circumstances that are immeasurably far from ideal. To direct the might of the state against those who have submitted to extortion is to punish what has, due the abject failure of the state itself, become a necessary condition of their personal and corporate survival.

The problems of extortion and ransom have been confronted by every society afflicted by terrorism or organised crime. Sanctions against the victims of extortion have been tried, and have been unqualified failures. Laws designed to inhibit the payment of ransom or protection monies have been passed in many countries, including Italy and a number of Latin American nations. Some governments have even sought to make all communication with criminals or illegal political organisations a criminal offence and have gone to the extent of arresting people for negotiating the release of hostages. Judges in Italy were even given powers to freeze the assets of companies when one of their members was kidnapped in order to block the release of funds for ransom. The result was uniformly counter-productive, as individuals, and companies that perceived themselves to be under threat simply created asset-pools outside the country. Extortion threats and kidnap were simply not reported, to the police, since any subsequent action to negotiate a settlement would otherwise render the party liable to arrest; settlements were consequently reached privately and as quickly as possible.

It is the primary and exclusive responsibility of the state to ensure that the business of extortion and kidnap for ransom leads to swift and severe reprisals against those, who profit from it. The "privatisation" of public security is not an option. An upgradation of police capabilities, in terms of arms, mobility, communications, intelligence, investigative techniques and skills, and access to modern technologies is a fundamental requirement to counter the extortionist, as are sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system to restore the dread bond between crime and swift, harsh and inevitable punishment.

(Edited version published in Pioneer, December 12, 1998.)





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