Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Ordering Ambiguity

Policing urban India

Prof. Dr. Julia Eckert

This ethnography of the urban Indian police contributes to an anthropology of the state and of state bureaucracy. I concentrate on the police and on everyday policing, with its key institution, the Thana (police station), and with what Oldenburg has described as the “dull, routine, business-as-usual (…) state (that manages) literally millions of transactions at the grassroots level” (Oldenburg 2003, 28).

The project encompasses two themes. Firstly, in a praxeological perspective, it describes and analyses the actual every day working of the police and the every day and the exceptional relations and interactions, which make the police the institution it is. It discusses the quotidian practices of classification, the transmission of routines, knowledge and traditions, as well as the manifold social, economic and political embeddedness of the police and their particular role in articulating and mediating the various social forces that regulate and control social relations.

Secondly, it traces the negotiations of rights, of norms of justice and authority that occur in the everyday interactions of citizens and state officials, as well as amongst state officials themselves. It thereby follows the struggles over the idea of the state, the meaning of the common good or the public interest, and the threats and perils that constitute notions of “crime”.

Both themes relate to each other as they both encompass struggles about the vision of the state and the practice of its institutions. Because of this role in the everyday organization of urban life the police are among those who translate the “reinvention of India” (Corbridge and Harriss 2000) into practice: their understanding of crime as expressed in their classification of events and persons; their notion of individual culpability, of the object worthy of their protection, of those considered enemies rather than delinquents; their notion of the social order, of the motives and causes of conflicts; their perception of the social groups that the state (or the police) are autonomous from and those they have no autonomy towards, their idea of their role within or rather towards society: These all respond to the societal changes that India is witnessing.

The deep transformations of the understanding of the nation, its capital bearers and those who burden and even threaten it, that have accompanied India’s economic liberalization in the last decades, have brought about new understandings of crime and threat. Democratization has contributed to this in a contradictory manner: On the one hand it has ideologically supported the shift in attention away from both the state and the propertied elites towards the “nation”; on the other hand, democratization, this meaning mainly the ever growing role of the hitherto disenfranchised segments of the Indian population in political mobilization and in elections has been perceived to be a force of chaos, of conflict and destruction by many, not least of all by the police.

These contradictions play out in the heightened tensions between ethos and ethics within the police. the ethos, that is the self-understanding and self—representation of the police as law enforcers and rule oriented entity, is inextricably entangled with an ethics of a greater common good in its historically changing understanding. These “ethics” guide the application and interpretation of rules; specific narratives, metaphors and figures that reference a common weal structure the application of law. It is thus not merely the extra-bureaucratic matter of the ethical dimensions of a specific delineation and definition of a common weal, but its narration, interpretation, contestation and affirmation within bureaucracies like the police that make bureaucratic practice deeply imbued with ethical evaluations:

  • Which roles and tasks serve this greater common good most importantly?
  • How precisely are rules to be interpreted and implemented in order to serve these ends?
  • Which division of labour is best aligned with an overall goal?
  • What responsibilities follow from ascribed competences, and which attribution of responsibility is “efficient”?

These questions arise in relation to such quotidian matters as budget allocations, competition, of allocating “cases” to specific bureaucratic agencies or “desks”. This is heightened for the police with its legal means of violence. Violence is always connected to moral orders that define when and towards whom it is legitimate, how it should be restrained and when it is unjust.

State violence is also connected to such moral orders, these going beyond the legal confines of state violence. What types of state violence are legitimate, in what contexts, and towards whom are all issues that are legally defined. But as Baxi has pointed out behind all legally sanctioned violence “lie congeries of unsanctioned violence” (Baxi 2009), in fact, the very distinction between legal and illegal state violence is often illusionary.

This “drama” (Young 1991, 256; cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 2006, 280) is staged every day, in sometimes dramatic, often un-dramatic ways at the local police station. It is here where what the state is and what it should be, the fissures within it, how it engages with its citizens, its subjects and the aliens it produces is battled over, negotiated, played out and enforced. The police are an institution within which and with which the norms that should govern the state are constantly negotiated. Here, the tension between what is desired from the state and how the state is experienced and practiced is most stark – for citizens, subjects and policemen themselves. Exploring these practices and relations, the everyday contestations over norms of governance and the meaning of citizenship come to light.