By Mujeebu Rahman
I was in a notary public office – Kutchery at Ranchi, Jharkhand – recently to get my certificate attested. Unlike the other urban office premises, it seemed the office has been structured in the wider existence of Ranchi’s street as an outdoor workplace. The area was super crowded as usual. I made my way past the crowd – of lawyers in their typical attires, which bestows temperance, seriousness, lessening the ego and an absence of display[i], as one of my lawyer friends mentioned once; clerks who had taken up tiny offices under tarpaulin beside the road; the clients displaying different emotions; busy photocopy shops with massive queues in front; the chaiwalas who seemed to be the only ones capable of balancing the emotions there – and entered a large hut nearby. I kept a strict vigil around the space, over nothing, in particular, and saw senior lawyers, the ones who sat in front of single and separated tables surrounded by a group of clerks who were busy with their typewriters. I still do not understand why typewriters continue to be pertinent to Indian legal system though the era of typewriting has been phased out in other areas of work!
I was wondering how and whom to approach to get my task done. I simply walked around the space but could not quickly figure out how the system worked there. Finally, I contacted a young lawyer, who seemed jobless among them or, probably, was taking a break from his super busy schedule.
‘Can you help me to get these certificates attested?’ I said.
‘Okay, show me your certificates.’ He replied in a hurry.
‘Yes, here they are!’ I handed over all my original certificates with their photocopies.
‘No! Just take out the copies and keep the originals with you.’
‘Really?’ I said in surprise. Normally, officials would be keen to check the originals and copies of your documents thoroughly to find excuses to not sign.
After checking the documents casually, he said, ‘Haa! Teek hai! Give me 100 rupees!’
‘100 rupees for a sign!’ I wondered. They were supposed to sign them for free!
Knowing that it was not a place to bargain and I wanted my work done sooner, I gave him the money. Yes, I bribed for the first time.
He took me to the centre of the hut and told me to wait in a crowded place, until he signalled to make a move. He vanished for a moment, but I was okay as my documents were still with me, except for the hundred rupees I paid him. I watched what was going on around me, while I waited for him to come back. He came back soon and took me to another side of the hut. I was told yet again to wait until he called.
Now, I started observing him from far to see what he was doing. I could see that he approached a senior lawyer, who looked like a superior officer, and had a word with him. Finally, I was called.
He was probably bargaining with the concerned senior official, who was qualified to sign. Since the lawyer I had approached was not qualified to sign, he would have to make sure his of his share of the money. It was done so smoothly because, I knew, I bribed.
In reality, the lawyers are the first contact for citizens, who need to access the “rights” and “justice”. And the citizens often end up paying a bribe. After my experience at the court, am I wrong to assume that the lawyers are inclined to show off an exaggerated sense of power, intimidation, hostility, and coercion?
One of my favourite theorists, Akhil Gupta’s (1995)[ii] works on structural violence started to bother me following this incident. Gupta’s convincing theorization of structural violence to understand the state makes sense to me exactly where I encounter the state in situations such as the one I narrated. I have always wondered how frequently the theme of corruption comes up in the everyday conversations of the common citizens of the country. Gupta says that corruption discriminates against all those who do not have the monetary resources to obtain goods and services that are supposed to be provided free or at subsidized prices but that, in fact, command a market price. It becomes a form of ‘structural violence’, according to him, by placing a value on goods that should be available free from the state, thereby denying some of the poorest people the means to sustain life.
In addition to being broadcast by the mass media, representations of the state are effected through the public practices of government institutions and agents. The majority of Indian citizens and particularly the poor section encounter the state in their relationships with government bureaucracies at the lowest levels of administration. These citizens are victimised because of the structural violence, which makes enormous impact in the representation of the state in the eyes of the common people. There is an intrinsic role of the relationship between state and society in the constant production of everyday violence. The more the state deviates from its legitimately restricted space, violence takes place in the society. In other words, when the different apparatus of state overtake their said roles, the relationship of state with society becomes violent, and that eventually brings conflict. My experience also compels me to understand the idea of structural violence and curruption from the perspective of state and society relationship.
What is this boundary between the state and society? To answer this, let me provide two images: verticality and encompassment of the state, as explained by Ferguson, J., & Gupta, A. (2002)[iii]. On the one hand, verticality image sees the state as superior in the power relation (imagine a power pyramid in which state is on the top followed by civil society and political society). On the other hand, encompassment image views the state as an encompassing body in which the boundary between state and society has been blurred. The apparatus of the state is categorized as repressive and ideological. The ideological state apparatus, like schools, family, local community, economic and health centers, etc., accommodates the encompassment image of the state as all these encompass the society through legitimizing state’s moral existence. Moreover, provisions for education and health initiatives, in other words, state’s developmental actions, help the state in achieving a social acceptance by convincing the society that those socio-economic rights would not have been provided had the state not been there. This paternal relationship as a service provider legitimizes its existence among its subjects.
Nonetheless, can the case be the same with regards to the repressive state apparatus? Repressive state apparatus, for instance, lawyers, police, army, armed forces, courts, repressive laws, always keep the classical characteristics of the state, its ‘spatiality’, and its ‘monopoly over the violence’. The state has legitimacy over violence. The case of how a citizen views a government school or a village office would not be the same, for instance, in the case how a citizen views a notary public and a police station. Repressive apparatus constantly keeps a distance, in public, from its everyday activities, unlike the other state institutions like schools and other state welfare offices. At the least, the physical appearance of repressive apparatus, unlike civilians, makes them always feel separated from the public. The state fails even more in its legitimizing process, when the repressive state apparatus becomes visible more than its ideological apparatus. This is what appeared to me during my encounter with the lawyer at the court in Ranchi.
[i] In India, the Advocates Act 1961 makes it mandatory for advocates appearing in the Supreme Court, High Courts, subordinate courts, tribunal or authorities to wear a dress that is sober and dignified. Section 49(1)(gg) of the Advocates Act, 1961, prescribes the same dress for all the advocates irrespective of the designation.
[ii] Gupta, A. (1995). Blurred boundaries: the discourse of corruption, the culture of politics, and the imagined state. American ethnologist, 22(2), 375-402.
[iii] Ferguson, J., & Gupta, A. (2002). Spatializing states: toward an ethnography of neoliberal governmentality. American ethnologist, 29(4), 981-1002.
Mujeebu Rahman has completed his Masters by Research from Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, India (IITGN). He is interested in law and governance, anthropology, and development discourses. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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