The Rajasthan chief minister should seek refuge not in the ambiguity of Kurosawa but in the wisdom of Martin Luther King.
The headline of a recent op-ed article in the Times of India by Rajasthan chief minister Vasundara Raje reflects the two contradictory voices of the Rajasthan government about lynching and mob violence. “Mob violence is unacceptable” is a strong and unambiguous statement. But the sub-head is perhaps more significant: “The notion that anybody or any political party supports lynchings is prejudice.” With this deeply problematic sub-head – drawn by the newspaper’s editors from the text of her article – Raje has lost an opportunity to unequivocally state that premeditated and motivated violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Or perhaps there was no such intent.
The word “prejudice” is used many times in her article – as a description of those protesting against identity based violence. It would have been more correct to use it to describe the manufactured hatred which has led to violent actions by gau-rakshaks.
A quick look at immediate comments reported in the media projects a contrary picture. In the absence of a clear political message, augmented by a very weak administrative response, it appears as if the government had no intention to support the victims of cow vigilantes. Cases might be filed – there are still obligations under the law and constitution – but the intent is to provide impunity to some privileged kinds of violence.
As Deccan Chronicle reported, Rajasthan’s home minister Gulabchand Kataria reacted to Pehlu Khan’s murder on April 3 by saying it was “alright” that “gau rakshaks” caught those who were illegally transporting animals but added that “no one has the right to take the law into their hands”. In similar vein, the minister told the assembly later: “Anyone carrying cattle illegally is a smuggler. Pehlu Khan did not have valid documents. He already had three cases of cow smuggling registered against him”. This was completely untrue as subsequent events showed.
Rajasthan has a history of violence on Dalits, minorities, adivasis and women. However violence has to be distinguished from lynching. Lynching by gaurakshaks is a new phase in the chequered history of violence in the state. It is premeditated, and the horror of lynching travels far beyond its immediate surroundings. It is designed to give vulnerable communities a message that they can be attacked at any time based on identity. Mob violence is most often used to describe two sets of people attacking each other. A lynching is a violent, public murder carried out by a mob. Wikipedia says it best: “It is most often used to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate a group. It is an extreme form of informal group social control.”
In Rajasthan, lynchings and mob violence have been motivated by a philosophy of hate and prejudice. The chief minister in her op-ed accuses those who demand an end to lawlessness of prejudice. In fact, the prejudice lies with those who subscribe to a political philosophy of intolerance, hate and majoritarian arrogance and this prejudice is amplified when it is accompanied by the complicity of power. Lynching falls within the definitions of pre-meditated crime. It is an act of violence distinctly more dangerous than any other for corroding the morals of an already degraded public psyche. It brings out the sadist in people; at the very least, turns bystanders into voyeurs who watch an individual or individuals being beaten and killed, with no desire to prevent the incident from happening.
Something rotten in the state
Pehlu Khan was lynched in broad daylight on National Highway 8 in Alwar district on April 1. He died on April 3. The chief minister’s unpardonable public silence on the matter lasted for over three weeks. This silence also sent a message of impunity to the lynch mobs – that they can get away with murder. The awful truth is that lynching is also the public failure of governance. Allowing vigilantism is the failure of policy, administration, the rule of law and the perpetuation of a perverse message of political will and tacit sanction.
The chief minister’s use of literary references diverts more than explains the issues to the reader. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon cannot allow ambiguity to become a shelter for inaction. Hamlet is one of the greatest plays in content and performance, but the Danish prince cannot be a role model for an administrator. Unfortunately for a chief minister, lynching cannot be the subject of a research study, it is an act that needs to be met immediately with strong administrative action. If one has to quote Tolstoy, one would choose to say with him that, “Wrong does not cease to be wrong, because the majority share in it”, and that “All violence consists in some people forcing others, under threat of suffering or death, to do what they do not want to do.”
Since the chief minister seems to suggest her critics depend on anecdotes and stories, rather than hard data, let us, look at the ‘facts’.
Raje maintained a long and telling silence about Pehlu Khan’s lynching, broken with a single statement in the assembly. In the case of Zaffar Hussain, the chief minister tweeted about his ‘demise’. A tweet is an inadequate tool of communication from the head of government, much more so at the time of tragedy. One would have expected a chief minister to pass an immediate message of zero tolerance to violence of this kind. The prime minister – errant in the discharge of his responsibilities as chief minister in 2002 and as prime minister, too, when he took months to respond to Akhlaq’s lynching – can hardly be a role model.
Silence is akin to complicity
Sadhvi Kamal’s statement when she met the accused that gaurakshaks are the modern day Bhagat Singhs, and her promotion of further such actions did not attract the hate speech provisions of the Indian Penal Code. The government’s silence has indicated tacit support from the party and the state. In fact, the reign of terror unleashed by gaurakshaks reflects the symbiotic links between the Bharatiya Janata Party, its aggressive policies on the ban on cattle slaughter, the creation of vigilante groups – and the protection of deliberate inefficiency of local administrations. This is reflected in not booking the culprits in time and in many slapping cases against the victims.
Pehlu Khan and Zaffar Hussain are not the only two cases of lynching. Lynchings in Rajasthan did not begin with Alwar. Five Dalits who claimed their land rights in Dangawas in Nagaur in 2015 were run over by a tractor deliberately in broad daylight. This was rapidly followed with the lynching of a Muslim vegetable vendor, Abdul Ghafoor, within a month in the same district. Action in the first case was delayed, even after repeated street protests and despite immediate fact finding committees providing the administration with details. Banjaras, whose livelihood is the cattle trade, have been targeted by gau-rakshaks in Rajsamand district, causing immense fear, extortion and permanent damage to their livelihood. In Bhilwara, gau-rakshaks burnt a truck and even attacked officials from the government of Tamil Nadu taking milch cattle back for breeding to their home state.
Criminal acts need to be condemned immediately, especially when the criminals claim to be motivated by the same principles and beliefs as the ruling party. That is why the chief minister’s ‘not in my name’ op-ed four months after the first lynching – which has torn apart whatever claims Rajasthan may have had for the rule of law – is too little, and far too late.
When I was probationer in the Indian Administrative Service in 1969, it was explained to me by the experts in maintaining law and order that communal and identity based violence should be dealt with swiftly and in a strong and exemplary manner. It is the only way to nip a process with Frankenstinian propensities. The Raje government seems to have decided to put aside these basic principles of administration.
Violence under any pretext
Violence has been further legitimised as a part of administrative action, as in the case of Zafar Hussain, the other case mentioned by the chief minister in her article.
Zafar Hussain was attacked on June 16 by members of the Pratapgarh municipalty invoking the Swachch Bharat programme, when he said that women defecating in the open must not be photographed.
In an urban environment, the poor often have no space to relieve themselves. The aggressively run Swachch Bharat campaign needs serious introspection. There is no poor person who would not welcome a functional toilet with water, if the Raje and Modi administrations were to help them overcome their constraints of land ownership and access to water.
In response to the Hussain’s death, medical reports have been produced to say he died of heart failure. No matter what the immediate trigger, we all die of the failure of the heart, eventually. The fact is that his death was provoked by a brutal assault on his body.
What makes things worse, is that Raje does not meet victims and their families after incidents of such mob violence. As activists of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, even we have been at the receiving end of her deliberate decision to look the other way. When the civil society-organised Jawabdehi Yatra passed through the chief minister’s home district and was attacked by a mob armed with lathis led by the BJP MLA from Aklera in January 2016, dozens of requests to meet the chief minister went unanswered. It might be recalled that Shankar, senior theatre activist, and Anurag Singh, a film maker, were mercilessly attacked by a gang of men armed with lathis, led by the sitting MLA Kunwarlal Meena. This was watched by a large group and videoed. The MLA was captured on video beating Shankar, but has yet to be arrested. In the video a bystander asks, “ Why are these people being beaten?” Someone answers , “I don’t know, they must be Muslims”.
As the chief minister of Rajasthan, Raje has the power to direct both the party and the executive. Whatever her party and parivar associates may be, it is believed that Raje is not communal. She could turn the tide in these critical times only if she unflinchingly enforces the spirit of the Indian constitution. That is the only rajdharma that can keep Rajasthan and India’s people together.
After facing hate and prejudice all his working life, Martin Luther King Jr., said “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
Vasundhara Raje should seek refuge not in the ambiguity of Kurosawa but in the wisdom of King. Madam chief minister, when it comes to lynching and premeditated mob violence, there is a way to make sure they don’t happen. You just haven’t tried hard enough.
Aruna Roy is a socio-political activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.