How Did the State Come to Legitimise Vigilante Action?

Vigilante behaviour and a total disregard for the constitution or the laws are apparently fine as long as they are backed by majoritarian will.

The scenes that came out of JNU, the safest and the most non-violent campus in India, are simply unbelievable and dystopian: masked goons – from outside JNU – roaming around freely and violently attacking professors and students, including female students, vandalising property, mob shouting “shoot the country’s anti-nationals,” and ambulances and medical volunteers being attacked.

We do not have confirmation regarding the identities of the masked mob.

But varied media reports from students and teachers suggest that police, which was already on campus, did nothing to stop the mob. One of the students injured most badly was the president of the JNU students’ union from the Left, the students and teachers targeted were non-ABVP, and anti-administration and the street lights were off while the mob entered (such large numbers cannot enter anyway without collusion from the administration). WhatsApp messages and photographs – all point to the direction of the ABVP-BJP and Hindutva groups being involved in the attack.

Of course, ABVP has instead alleged that it is the Left that has unleashed mob violence. Yet, as every important political leader has tweeted about the unprecedented violence in JNU, the Prime Minister, who had tweeted after the violence at Jamia saying that “never has damage to public property and disturbance of normal life been a part of our ethos” is silent even 24 hours after the incident.

So, is an attack against India’s premier university, and its teachers and students, a part of our ethos? The irony is that the state can be repressive not just by using excessive force, but also by complete silence.

Since 2016, JNU has been prepped by the state and its supporters, as well as by the propagandist media, for vigilante action; after all, it is anti-national and seditious, that too at the expense of taxpayers. The intention is to break this tiny space of dissent at any cost. Thus, even the external affairs minister, a JNU alumnus, after initially condemning the JNU violence, referred to the “Tukde Tukde” gang at JNU.

The fact that the state is repressive, even in the oldest democracy of the Third World, is a given. Thus, India has a long history of extra-judicial killings – euphemistically called “encounter killing”.

But what is more dangerous is the internalisation by the citizens of the state’s vigilante mode. Popular support for vigilantism in a democracy can be catastrophic. Telangana police’s extra-judicial killing of the rape accused, and widespread commendation of the police action, including by film and sports celebrities, political leaders, including sitting chief ministers and so on shows a very scary tendency in India’s polity.

Telangana was just a trailer. But, apparently, Uttar Pradesh is the real deal, for its chief minister, has openly and blatantly declared that he will take “revenge” on the protestors. Now, that is not the language of the state, but that of the vigilantes.

Also read: It’s Time to Tell Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, ‘Hum Sab JNU’

Yet, protests against the CAA should not delude us that there is no support for the police action by the Yogi government. A perusal of the readers’ comments on editorials against the police action in liberal newspapers and WhatsApp messages circulated even by non-Hindutva supporters shows the stark reality of internalisation of vigilantism, but this time with the added logic of majoritarian communalism: the need to teach the “violent Muslims” a lesson.

Ironically, lakhs of “violent Muslims,” and others marched peacefully in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kochi, Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad without a single incident of violence.

As countless news reports indicate, and as tens of videos have shown, police action in UP cannot be termed as anything less than a “reign of terror”. It is one thing for police personnel to defend their bodies and lives (which is not even a point of debate) in front of a mob and an entirely another matter for the police to fire even when not faced with an immediate threat, or to fire in the first instance without exhausting all non-lethal options, to go on the rampage after the event, beat up women and old men, lay homes to waste, detain children and torture them, refuse to hand over bodies for funerals, arrest activists and others who are not involved in the protests, all the while targeting only the Muslims.

Police beat up protesters in Lucknow. Photo: PTI

When the UP Police claims that all the 21 people, except one, who were killed, were killed by the protestors’ bullets, prima facie, it is an incredulous story considering the lack of casualties on the police side. Of course, the truth has to be established, but how do we believe the claims of the state when between 1997 and 2016, there have been 790 custodial deaths in India, with merely eight police personnel convicted?

When the state seeks to extract compensation for destroyed property from citizens on its own without a judicial process, and in violation of Supreme Court orders, you are in the classic territory of vigilantism, and extortion in the name of instant justice. Contrast this with the many videos available of the police itself indulging in wanton destruction of property.

Despite the indescribable cruelties meted upon many innocent Muslims by the police, it would be wrong to focus on the vigilantism of the police in isolation of the political context. The police are only a reflection of society in the first place. The communalisation of the police mirrors the communalisation of society, which has a long history. After all, the brutal killing of 42 Muslims by the Provincial Armed Constabulary of UP took place in 1987 under a Congress regime.

Also read: Must JNU Be ‘Normalised’?

Yet, what is happening under the present dispensation is of a shockingly different magnitude. And the critical difference is that somebody like a Yogi Adityanath is in power in UP. This was a person, who, as an elected member of parliament, routinely made the vilest of hate speeches, including one where he said, “If they take one Hindu girl, we will take 100 Muslim girls. If they kill one Hindu, we will kill 100 Muslims.”

In any democratic and civilised society, Adityanath would have been in jail for this speech alone and would not have been able to run for any public office after that. But instead, he controls the largest police force in the country. He has withdrawn the hate speech cases against himself. Can we expect the police, under Adityanath, to behave any differently than it did with the CAA protests?

Why state or people vigilantism is completely a function of majoritarian support is evident from the varied responses to different mob actions. In December 2018, a mob of around 400 gau rashaks burnt a police post, set vehicles on fire, and killed a conscientious police inspector, Subodh Singh in Bulandshahr district. The chief minister did not attach the properties of the accused. Narendra Modi did not condemn the incident despite the killing of a policeman, an act of sedition. The main accused, a Bajrang Dal leader is on bail now.

While the state and the popular narratives in the aftermath of CAA were entirely based on the destruction of property, and the total illegitimacy of protesting against a law legitimately passed by the parliament, it is shocking that there is nary a concern for human lives lost, even when we know now that at least a few who died, like the 8-year old boy, were not violent protestors.

What kind of a society grieves for burnt buses over the death of the 17-year old boy, Sam Stafford, in Assam who was returning home after the protests, or the 26-year old daily wage-labourer, Noor Mohammad, in UP with a pregnant wife at home, who was shot some distance away from the protests?

Contrast the sanctimonious concern for property with the complete and wilful amnesia over the greatest act of vandalism in independent India, the destruction of the Babri Masjid, which also led to the killing of over 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, in riots which followed. The top leadership of the BJP, facing criminal charges for conspiracy, are yet to be convicted, even after 28 years.

Karsevaks at the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Credit: Reuters

Karsevaks at the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Photo: Reuters

Or further contrast the new-found belief in legality and the sacredness of parliament with the majoritarian view on the Sabarimala verdict, handed down by the Supreme Court of India. Prime Minister Modi questioned the verdict arguing that Sabarimala was a matter of faith and lambasted the Kerala government for trying to implement the law of the land. Amit Shah said that courts should not pronounce verdicts which could not be implemented and threatened to bring down the Kerala government. In the widespread violence that was unleashed by Hindutva groups for days, 100 public transport buses alone were burnt.

Also read: JNU Violence: When Knowledge Becomes a Signifier of Dissidence

Vigilante behaviour and a total disregard for the constitution or the laws are apparently fine as long as they are backed by majoritarian will. Therefore, we should not be shocked by the Meerut police officer who asked Muslim anti-CAA protestors to go to Pakistan.

Is he any more culpable than the home minister, who in April, referring to Muslims in Wayanad, Kerala, said, “Can’t make out if it’s India or Pakistan”? Or, is he any more culpable than the prime minister, who said recently that rioters can be identified by their clothes?

Similarly, it is Narendra Modi, and Amit Shah who made fashionable the terms, “Urban Naxal” and “Tukde Tukde”, the words most commonly used by the Hindutva supporters to describe JNU.

Make no mistake: whether it is the “Muslim” CAA protestors or the “anti-national” JNU, the legitimacy for vigilante action comes from the highest echelons of the state, amplified by the “people” on their side.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada and tweets @nmannathukkaren.