Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Arms races is as old as human socialisation and its causes are mutual suspicions and insecurity

What History Has to Teach of Arms Races and Their Causes

In his book “My Century”, a collection of 100 inter-linked short stories celebrating the 20th Century, each of the 100 stories summarising the mood of each year of the century from the German perspective, Gunter Grass characterisation of the atmosphere in pre-First World War Europe amidst wide public insecurity introduced by an arms race in around 1911 is typical of the writer’s wit. A single line in a fictional letter from the Chancellor of Germany, Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann Hollweg, to a friend says it all: “I wish to be a prince of peace – but a well-armed one.” Written jovially, but nonetheless explains as only art can, the peculiar atmosphere of uncertainty and mutual suspicion Europe was in grip of at the time, and the mindless arms race that marked the period, all claiming it was in the interest of peace.

This seems exactly the mood in Manipur for a long time in the backdrop of multi-pronged hostile rivalries between communities. Every community now virtually has a militia, all with objectives that vary widely in terms of ideology and approach, and often these ideologies at loggerheads with each other. This without doubt is complicating the conflict situation therefore making a comprehensive solution that can bring about lasting peace, ever more elusive. The cause-and-effect story of how this came about is a matter of allegation and counter-allegation but the fact is, caught in the middle are the ordinary citizenry across the board and across the ethnic divides. The state institution is supposed to ensure this does not happen, but unfortunately it is in this area of onerous statutory responsibility that the shadow is darkest. This is quite in contradiction to the characterisation of the State by Max Weber who emphasised that not only is the state supposed to have monopoly over legitimate violence, but also monopoly over legitimate possession of arms.

The unwritten understanding is, the individual citizens are supposed to repose absolute faith in the State that their security needs would be taken care of by the State and indeed it is a bounden responsibility of the State to ensure that its citizenry is secured from external as well as domestic aggressions. It is this unwritten article of faith which is degenerating in places like Manipur, and with it there has been an exponential rise in complications in the matrix of ethnic friction and sometime even open violence.

If the State were to be able to live up to this expectation, it would have been justified to never allow any deviation from the fundamental premise that possession of lethal arms by anybody other than the security organs of the state, except if this is with explicit permission from the State. This also implies that the State under no circumstance can make alliances with illegally armed men regardless of whatever the exigencies. The moment it makes a concession, a breach would have been created in this article of faith. The vital point is, the State must fight all illegally armed organisations impartially. If any truce is reached or ceasefire agreed upon, it must have to be under definite and strict ground rules that will not compromise the security of the ordinary citizenry. In other words, give those who agree to negotiate peace the protective umbrella of the State, but without compromising on the initial article of faith that bearing arms or using them by any organisation other than by an organ of the state security establishment is illegal.

Or else take the American approach and trust arms in the hands of the citizens for their individual defence against aggression, external or domestic. It is interesting that the very second amendment of the American constitution, incorporated into the constitution in 1791 along with nine other amendments which together form what is now famously known as the “Bill of Rights”, is the right to possess arms by citizens. The first amendment is about the guarantee of freedom of speech and the press. If the order of arrangement of the amendments in the list of 10 is any indication of priority, the American constitution can be said to consider the right of citizens to possess and carry arms most fundamental after the right to free speech and expression. Perhaps this outlook had a lot to do with the nation being a settler state, having for most part of its pre-constitutional history to advance its frontiers westward, encountering in the process hostile resistances both from Native Americans, as well as colonial powers other than England.

Again, in the end, it was also a citizen’s militia that ultimately had to shoulder the responsibility of liberating their country from English colonial yoke. Such a policy is unthinkable in India. For one, in a country of such diverse nationalities, and such diverse religions, there is considerable legitimacy in the State being insecure about an armed citizenry. But then, if this is the case, it becomes all the more the bounden duty of the State to ensure that nobody is illegally armed to become the cat in the pigeon coop. The sense of security that an armed individual supposedly gets from the possession of arms must under the altered circumstance be had from the knowledge and confidence that an armed State is his or her protector.

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