Friday, February 12, 2016

Violence As A Political Weapon - A Study Of Its Efficacy


— Raj Kumar Jha

Never before has the glorification of violence as a political .weapon been so blatantly pursued as in recent times. Many may call it the Rambo syndrome. There is, today, glory in violence. There is a savage honour attached to violence, one that unfortunately evokes a lust for brutality, destruction and mayhem. There is an inexplicable magnetism to violence, a magnetism that is helping spawn a cult of violence worldwide. It would be a truism to say that the modern world is turning more and more violent. There are groups that consider violence as the panacea of all social and political ills; there are individuals who consider violence as the final arbiter of all disputes. Gone are the days of Albert Camus' The Just Assassins who believed that violence on the innocent, for whatever cause, is unfair. Individual and group violence  invites state repression which results in, more often than not, greater violence. This cyclic process cuts at the very root of a civil society. But there are people who do not consider violence as *a vicious circle. Instead, to them, violence consumes. It devours. It grows.1

In less than forty flve years, the Indian sub-continent has seen violence consume Mahatma Gandhi, Liaquat Ali Khan. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Lalit Narain Mishra, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Sant Harcharan Singh longowal, General A. S. Vaidya and Rajiv Gandhi. It has been reported that in India "we live today with a daily human toll that should be shattering : thirty a day are killed in Punjab, five or ten in Assam and Kashmir. At least a hundred others elsewhere in the country lose their lives every month in riots, caste conflict or election violence : we do not seem to be able to exercise our democratic rights without spilling blood...what this daily haemorrhage is doing to the quality of the national blood, and I fear that our willingness to live with it is damaging our collective psyche in ways whose lasting harm we may come to see too late''.2 A scholar-diplomat turned politician bemoaning the trend has observed that “Once we were an example to the world. Now we are a warning''.8 It must, however, be noted that India is comparatively a late-comer in adopting violence as a political weapon. Even in the United States of America, as far back as in 1960's, committees were set up to look into the causes and consequences of violence.

Even though violence has so frequently been used as a political weapon, only perfunctory attention has been paid by scholars do the phenomena. Very few universities, if at all, have included "Violence as a political weapon" in their curricula of political science. So much so, that no attempt has yet been made even to define "violence" and its use as a "political weapon”. In this short paper, it is proposed to define violence, categorise various forms of violence and examine the efficacy of violence as a political weapon.

Defining Violence

The term violence is derived from the Latin word Violentus which is akin to another Latin word Violare which means "to violate". Violence is exertion of physical force so as to "injure or abuse"; "intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force" and "injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation."4 Thus, we find that violence is a property of force. A force may be said to be violent if it violates, i.e., if it breaks and destroys that to which it is applied. It is an act of violence to strike my neighbour, an act only of force to steer him uninjured but against his will from the room.5 For our purposes we may define violence as a property of force, the application of which, through injury or the threat of it, violates the rights of individuals and groups. Wolff has added another dimension to the concept of violence. He has linked violence with legitimacy. For him, violence is the illegitimate or unauthorised use of force to effect decisions against the will or desire of others.6 Wolff's definition helps in distinguishing between individual and group violence on the one hand and the violence committed by the state on the other. Thus, murder is an act of violence, but capital punishment by a legitimate state is not. But, Wolff's definition blurs the distinction between violence and what has been called naked-power. Violence is something more than an illegitimate act, it destroys or intends to destroy to which it is applied. Violence always has instrumental character. The implements of'violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength.

When violence is used to affect "authoritative allocation of Values" for a society, or attending to the general arrangements of a society, or affecting the political behaviour of others, affecting the course    of  political events it becomes a political weapon. Nieberg has termed violence as a political weapon  as  "political violence". He has defined political violence as  "acts of disruption, destruction, injury,  whose purpose, choice of targets or victims, surrounding circumstances, implementation, and /or effects, have political significance. That tends to modify the behaviour of others in a bargaining situation that has consequences for the social system." In fact, as violence has an instrumental character, it always is used to achieve some purpose. When it is used for political purposes, violence becomes a political weapon.

Why Violence ?

No one engaged in thought about politics and history can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs, and it is at first glance rather surprising that "violence has been singled out so seldom for special consideration."7 This statement can be substantiated by pointing out that in the last edition of the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences .'violence' does not get even an entry.8 There exists, of course, a large literature on war and warfare, but it deals with the implements of violence, not with violence, as such. Sorel remarked some ninety years ago that "the problems of violence still remain very obscure".9 The remark is as true today as it was then. Many social and political theorists have equated violence with power. It appears that there is a consensus among political theorists from Left to Right to the effect that violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power. C. Wright Mills said that "All politics is struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence",10 echoing as it were, Max Weber's definition of state as ' the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate violence."11 Weber seems to have agreed with Trotsky's remark that "Every state is based on violence."12

Equating power with violence has caused considerable confusion. MaoTse-tung proclaimed that "Power grows out of the barrel of a gun". Here gun, that is violence, is an instrument of power, not power itself. Even Marx was aware of the role of violence in history, but this role was to him secondary; not violence but the contradictions inherent in the old society brought about its end. The emergence of a new society was preceded, but not caused, by violent outbreaks, which he likened to the labour pangs that precede, but of course do not cause, the event of organic birth. In the same vein he regarded the state as an instrument of violence in the command of the ruling class; but the actual power of the ruling class did not consist of, or rely on, violence.

But the world has changed so much that the adherents of  Gandhi and non-violence are on the defensive, and it would be futile to assert that only the 'extremists' are yielding to a glorification of violence and have discovered—like Frantz Fanon's Algerian peasants — that "only violence pays".13

To come to the point of distinction between power and violence it should be pointed out that power always stands in the need of numbers, whereas violence up to a point can manage without them because it relies on implements. "The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."14 While power may be construed as the capacity to influence the decisions of others, violence always relies on the instruments of violation. Power is always action in concert, violence need not be collective. Thus Arendt concludes that "Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent”.15

Many radical thinkers have tried to find violence concealed within existing social structure. For them, if there is such structural violence contained in seemingly peaceful institutions, then violent opposition to them would be more easily justified. If the state is based on violence, then to oppose it through violence can't be ruled out. But, here, the proponents of such view fail to understand the difference between the responsibility of the state and the obligation of the individuals. The primary function of a state is to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens and in order to perform its primary function the state has to take recourse to violence. The individual, or a group, can't arrogate, the power to use violence as that would violate the rights of other individuals and groups. Again, violence by one group would invite greater violence from the affected group.. The vicious circle would make the functioning and stability of civil society impossible.

Theorists of social and political behaviour have deciphered other causes of violence also. They link violence with severe deprivation. The. New Left also eulogised violence as it considered violence .as the only answer to deprivation. - Sartre, in his preface to Fanon's The wretched of the Earth, has unabashedly advocated recourse to violence. For Sartre through "irrepressible man recreating himself”, and that it is "through mad fury” that ''the wretched of the earth" can "become men". Sartre further says that "To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone...there remain a dead man and a free man." Thus, for some, deprivations of various types — relative, aspirational, decremental and progressive are the real causes of violence.

Some theorists link violence with societal, economic and political change. Purely traditional societies with long-established patterns of authority and simple but workable economies are relatively untroubled by violence. People live as their ancestors lived and do not expect much from government and society. Similarly, modern, advanced societies with rational types of authority and productive economies have relatively minor types of violence. It is at the in-between stage, when modernisation is stirring and upsetting traditional societies, that the society becomes most violence-prone. The modernising societies have left one world — the world of traditional stability, but have not yet
arrived at the new world of modern stability. Everything is changing in such societies — the economy, religious attitudes, lifestyle, cultural ethos and the political system — leaving people worried, confused and ripe for violent actions. Paradoxical though it might appear, yet the fact is that violence spreads when things are generally getting better, not when they are getting worse.

There are several reasons for this. When people are perennially poor and deprived, they have no hope for the future, they are miserable but quiet. When things improve, they start imagining a better future; their aspirations are awakened, expectations raised. No longer content with their lot, they want improvement at a faster rate than even a growing economy can deliver. Worse, during times of prosperity, some people get richer faster than others, arousing jealousy. Certain groups feel bypassed by the economic changes and turn especially bitter taking recourse to violence. Thus "relative deprivation" is the real problem, not poverty in itself.

Other economic changes can also spur unrest. Eric R. Wolfe16 has argued that the shift from subsistence farming to cash crops dependent on markets, landlords and bankers impoverishes many peasants and turn them from quietude to violence.

Some other theorists and polemologists have found the causes of violence in "helplessness", in "group territorialism", in "rage” and in "human aggressiveness". Samuel P. Huntington has observed that only when the "numbers" of peasants and workers get behind them the "brains" of the intellectuals, who have come to see the political system as oppressive, does violence erupt on a large scale.

Types of Violence

All violence is not the same. Various thinkers have tried to categorise violence in their own ways. One of the better categorisations has been made by Fred R. Von der Mehden, who sees, five general types of violence.17 They are : Primordial, Separatist, Revolutionary, Coups and Issues.


Primordial violence grows out of conflicts among various communities—ethnic, national, caste-based, linguistic, regional or religious — into which people are born. Communal and Caste riots in India, the multi-group conflict in Lebanon, and the tribal conflicts in some African nations are examples of primordial violence, it is not necessarily confined to developing countries. Such antagonisms exist in Quebec, the Basque country of Spain and Northern Ireland, where there is something akin to a tribal feud between Protestants and Catholics.


Separatist violence, which is often an outgrowth of primordial conflict, aims to break away from the country dominated by other groups. The present violence in Punjab and Kashmir, the violence in Yugoslavia, the violence in Sri Lanka are examples of separatist violence.


Revolutionary violence aims at overthrowing or replacing an existing regime. This category includes within itself counterrevolutionary violence.


Coups are usually counter-revolutionary in intent, aimed at heading off a feared military takeover. Coups are almost always military, although the military usually has connections with and support from key civilian groups. Coups occur when the conventional institutions of government — parties, lagislatures, and executives — are so weak that they leave the military with the choice of either taking over or facing chaos.


There are some types of violence that do not fit in any of the above categories. Violence oriented to particular issues is a catchall category and usually less deadly than other kinds. The Protests against the Vietnam war, the student violence at American and French Universities in the late 1960's, the recent violence against Tamils in Karnataka over Cauvery Water dispute and the anger that grows around some economic problems are examples of issue-oriented violence. There may be a fine line between issue-oriented violence and revolutionary violence, for if the issue is serious enough, protests over an issue can turn into a revolutionary tide The Naxal violence in India is an example of issue-based violence that exhibits revolutionary character.

All these categories are apt to be arbitrary. Some start in one category and escalate into another. No country, not even a highly developed one, is totally immune to some kind of violence. Some writers include a category called anomic violence, representing spontaneous and unorganised rampages.


In the present age, violence as a political weapon often takes the form of terrorism. In its wider sense, terrorism is the organised use of an act or threat of violence against individuals or groups to change the outcome of some process of politics. Classic terrorism aimed at the elimination of individuals. The ancient tactics of tyrannicide have been preached and practised for many centuries. With the ruler (or important individual) dead, government (or main course) was expected to change. Terrorism may be "expressive", "signalling", "attention drawing" and "fear arousing". In modern democracies getting attention in the mass media — press, radio, film, and television — is often easily attainable by almost any act or behaviour that is unusual; or spectacular enough.

Modern terrorism has certain characteristics that distinguish it from classical terrorism. It is often directed against soft targets;

It is based on organisational support; it has become more frequent; its activities are reported in mass media with sensationalism; a large part of modern terrorism is supported by governments through money, diplomatic facilities, passports, sanctuaries, experts, training camps, weapons, explosives and justifying ideologies. Some governments support these activities but they do so within a context of deniability — trying to conceal the involvement of their personnel and the traces of their actions (As is the case with Pakistan in Punjab and Kashmir).

Is Violence as a Political Weapon Effective ?

It would be naive to dismiss political violence as of little consequence. There are two viewpoints regarding the efficacy of violence as a political weapon. One, like the New Left, believes that violence is not only effective, but the pis aller of change for the better. This viewpoint has its votaries on the side of state also who believe that without total repression, the violence-maniacs could not be challenged, checked and wiped out. The other viewpoint holds that violence can never be a political weapon. Politics is based on dialogue, persuasion and give and take. As soon as violence enters, politics disappears. The truth lies between these two viewpoints.

Generally, assassinations of leaders do not disrupt or change political systems. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia only resulted in his replacement by Tsar Alexander III, with the old autocratic government continuing. When John F. Kennedy was murdered his successor L. B. Johnson was sworn within an hour and the main policies of the U. S. continued. Similarly, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was murdered, but the Indian democratic system continued with Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE militants, the Indian resolve to send them back to Sri Lanka did not abate.

Hannah Arendt is of the firm opinion that violence does not promote causes, neither history nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction; but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention. She, therefore, feels that violence can remain rational only if it pursues . short-term goals.16 But one thing is clear. With the modern weapons of mass-destruction and their expanding outside support base have put terrorists in a position where they are feared by the general populace. Arousing fear in a modern democracy is a very serious matter. Since, in a democracy, people are free to speak, write, vote and seek office in elections, terrorist groups are automatically suspected of being small minorities who cannot win elections and whose views are too extreme to make them eligible partners for winning coalitions. If such a minority then arouses fear through the terrorist acts of some of its members it soon becomes hated and a likely target of state repression. Only if this minority is relatively large, predominant in some distinct territory, remote from the majority's centres of interest and power, and has territorial proximity with a country which provides it with support and sanctuaries, are majorities likely to let troublesome minorities and their territories go. Thus, various combinations of terrorism, guerilla warfare, and a helpful international setting eventually led to the independence of Ireland in 1922, of Israel in  1948, and of Cyprus in 1960.

The history of the world during the last forty years has been infested with acts of violence and terrorism. To believe in violence as a life-promoting force is at least as old as Nietzsche. But as has been pointed out by Arendt, "The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world."19 Deutsch has also come to the conclusion that "Terrorism can become a self-perpetuating system...Terrorism usually changes little and solves nothing. It consumes scarce resources of talent, devoted manpower, thought, and attention. In the long run it most often weakens the side that practices it, and it weakens the country in which it takes place."20

The very substance of violent action is ruled by the means-end category, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means. Since the end of human action can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals. A Commission to enquire into violence in the U.S.A. concluded in its report that "Force and violence are likely to be successful techniques of social control and persuasion when they have wide popular support".21 In a democracy with wide popular support anything could be done through ballot. Bullets can never be a substitute for ballots. The sooner it dawns upon all, the better will it be for the future of the society and the world.


1.    Arun Katiyar, "Violence : Is India Spinning out of Control-'

The Illustrated Weekly of India, July 6-12, 1 991, p. 9.

2.    Shashi Tharoor, "India, Our India", The Statesman (Festival ’91), p. 67.

3.    Natwar Singh Cited in Note 1, p. 8.

4.    Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1973), p. 1306.

5.    See, Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (The Macmillan Press, London, 1982), p. 486.

6.    Robert P. Wolff, "On Violence'', The Journal of Philosophy Mo. 66 (1969), pp 601 — 16.

7.    Hannah Arendt, "On Violence", Crises of the Republic (Penguin, 1973), p. 87.

8.    Ibid.

9.    Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, Introduction to the First Publication (1906), New York, 1961, p. 60.

10.    C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York, 1956), p. 171.

11.    Max Weber, "Politics as a Vocation" in Political Sociology (Penguin, 1971), Opening paragraph.

12.    Cited in Note 11.

13.    Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press Edition, 1961). p. 61.

14.    Arendt, Op. Cit., p. 111.

16. Ibid, p. 123.

16.    Eric R. Wolfe. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century ( New York, 1969).

17.    Fred R. Von dor Mehden, Comparative Political Violence (Prentice Hall, 1973).

18.    Arendt, Op. Cit., p. 140.

19.    Ibid, p. 141.

20.    Karl W. Deutsch.Th e Analysis of international Relations (PHI, 1989), p. 201.

21.    Report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, June, 1969. See Jerome H. Skolnick, "The Politics of Protest" and H. G. Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, "Does Violence Work ?" in Issues of the Seventies (Belmont, 1970), pp. 490 - 512.
Research Journal Of Politics, Ranchi  University, Jan,1992 Vol 1, No2

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