Since the inauguration of the second term of Narendra Modi’s government in May, three major political events have revealed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s determination to press forward with its long-term agenda of constructing a Hindu rashtra.
The first was to make defunct Article 370, put Kashmir under an indefinite lockdown enforced by the military, detain the entire political leadership of the Valley and demote a bifurcated state to the status of union territories ruled directly from New Delhi. The second was to follow up the fiasco caused by the botched attempt to compile a National Register of Citizens in Assam with the announcement that the exercise would be repeated across the whole country. The third and most recent event is the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in parliament.
What the intention is behind these three deliberate moves and the severe injury they have inflicted on the very identity of the nation have been pointed out by several leaders and commentators, but not, unfortunately, by all who claim to represent the opposition.
The reason for this timidity will be found, I suggest, by turning our attention to another – apparently non-political – event that took place a few days ago. This was the shooting by policemen of four men accused of raping and killing a young woman in Hyderabad. The raging passions exhibited by masses of urban people across the country over that incident indicate the emotional climate in which political leaders, bureaucrats and even judges are making their decisions today. This emotional climate is best described by one word: paranoia.
The clamour for instant justice
There were two overwhelming sentiments expressed in connection with the so-called encounter killings in Hyderabad, which nobody for a moment believes were anything other than deliberate executions carried out by the police acting on orders from the top. The two sentiments are connected.
The first is the deep sense of physical insecurity and fear felt by middle-class people, especially women, as they go about their daily lives in cities and towns. The second is the utter lack of faith in the ordinary procedures of law to punish the guilty or deter likely offenders. The two sentiments combined to produce an extraordinary clamour for instant justice. People across the country were lauding the Telangana police for doing what they believe should be standard procedure in cases of rape: kill the culprits on suspicion. That is apparently the only way our cities can be made safer for women.
There is no question that the sense of insecurity is entirely genuine. What we need to ask is why that feeling translates into the demand for summary killings.
Large, medium and small cities all over India have, in the last three decades, seen a massive influx of migrants from rural areas, some seasonal, others permanent, who search for precarious livelihoods in a variety of occupations in the so-called informal sector. A large part of this new urban population consists of single males who do not have any familial or cultural support to deal with the intense and mostly unfamiliar emotional pressures of life in the city slums and streets.
On the other side of the class divide, the middle class senses a palpable threat. While it is dependent on the services of the migrant population, it feels constantly exposed to hazards ranging from insolent behaviour and petty crime to more serious dangers to life and property. The wealthy are able to protect themselves by retreating into gated housing societies and secure institutions of work and entertainment. But the ordinary middle class feels helpless and frets when public authorities are unable to offer them the safety it seeks.
But to raise these issues is to invite the impatient ire of those who will say, “Enough of your sociological analysis. We have heard plenty of that. It’s all fancy talk meant to create excuses for not doing anything.” True indeed, because after the huge protests in New Delhi over the ghastly gang rape in 2012, Justice Verma produced a report, the rape laws were tightened and yet nothing seems to have stopped those perverted men from attacking women.
Clearly, these critics will say, even the threat of the death penalty is not enough. The fault is in the procedures of law, with its insistence on fairness and rigorous standards of proof, which only give the guilty the chance to delay and perhaps ultimately evade the delivery of justice. Those niceties of the law have no effect on the sorts of men who threaten the safety of urban women. Only summary justice of the kind that was carried out in Hyderabad will strike fear in their hearts.
Paranoia is a state of mind in which people have a hugely exaggerated feeling of persecution, of being constantly threatened by known and unknown enemies. Uncertainty – not being able to tell when and where the next attack might come – heightens the sense of insecurity.
Looking for certainty, people tend to read definitive meanings in chance events. This is what happened in 2012 in New Delhi when tens of thousands of people suddenly seemed to make up their minds that enough was enough: someone had to do something to stop these wanton attacks on women. But the actions taken by the authorities did not bring certainty at all, because the trials and appeals went on for years while the violence in the cities continued. Now, in Hyderabad, the staged encounters seemed to bring the matter to a definite conclusion: the culprits were all dead.
Paranoia is not a state of mind that tolerates fine judgment. People were not willing to admit that the certainty they had found might be false. How can we be sure that the men killed by the Telangana police were indeed the ones who had committed the crime? We have only the word of the police, and even according to that version, the suspects were still being investigated.
And what about the consequences of giving policemen the power to kill on mere suspicion? Don’t we know the chilling history of encounter deaths in this country, of how it leads to the indiscriminate elimination of not only suspects but entirely innocent persons, of the rise of encounter specialists and new avenues of corruption in the police? But to raise those questions is to cloud the reassuring clarity of a definite conclusion. The paranoid mind will not accept it.
The search for certainty and closure usually ends up in finding a weak and defenceless target. Hapless migrant men in the city cannot but be aware of the wealth and luxury enjoyed by those who live in fancy bungalows and gated apartments. But no matter how deep their resentment, they know that the wealthy are beyond reach. So some of them seek out vulnerable women as objects of their violent fantasies. One act of male power overrides with deadly finality the utter powerlessness of their social condition.
Similarly, those in the middle class who feel powerless when confronted by the many insecurities in their lives turn to the police to summarily eliminate the suspect it has in its grasp. He is a dangerous predator and there is no one in the city to speak up for him, unlike the billionaire’s drunken son who ran his Lamborghini over the bodies of sleeping men on the pavement. Had it been the latter case, the police might have hesitated, but a village lout preying on women? Why should the police be held back?
Those holding the reins of government are expected not to yield to such thoughtless public remonstrations. At least, that is the whole point of constitutional government. The government can make policies to serve this or that interest. In a democracy, it can even make good on promises it has made to its electoral supporters. But it must do so within a framework of laws that restrains those policies such that they are non-arbitrary and apply equally to all.
That standard has been subverted from time to time in India, both by the Centre as well as the states, most egregiously during the emergency of 1975-77. We are in such a period once more. Instead of acting as normative constraints on policy, the law and the constitution have been turned into instruments of policy. They are being used tactically to serve this or that policy objective.
The instrumental use of the law
That is how constitutional provisions were manipulated with cynical calculation to empty out Article 370 and bifurcate and reduce the status of Jammu and Kashmir. That, once more, is how an utterly specious argument of offering refuge to victims of religious persecution in neighbouring Muslim countries has been mobilised to push through a Citizenship (Amendment) Act which, for the first time, not only introduces a religious criterion into the definition of Indian citizenship but identifies Muslims as a group that may be excluded from its purview.
To not limit the blame to the BJP alone, let us note that the Telangana authorities did the same when its police chief announced after the encounter deaths: “The law has done its duty.” Besides, why restrict the charge to politicians and bureaucrats? Even the judges of the Supreme Court agreed to lend their jurisprudential talents to proclaim what is essentially a realist political resolution of the Ayodhya dispute with an intricately woven judgment of thoroughly dubious legal merit. They bowed to what they felt was the dominant public sentiment.
It would be unfair to lay the entire blame for the pervasive sense of insecurity on the government in power. There are many economic and social forces that have worked to produce this climate. But governments and political leaders do, as a matter of political strategy, aggravate the sense of insecurity in order to be able to offer supposedly decisive solutions.
Before the elections of April-May 2019, the Modi government vastly magnified the military threat from Pakistan and carried out what were colourfully described as “surgical strikes” on Pakistani targets – a decisive intervention that previous governments had never been bold enough to make. It paid electoral dividends to the BJP.
Similarly, the persistent demonisation by BJP leaders of Muslims as beef-eaters, infiltrators, traitors and potential terrorists encouraged voluntary lynch mobs to take it upon themselves to pick on defenceless Muslims and thrash them to death. The persistent circulation of hateful rhetoric, authorised by political leaders, has the effect of characterising an entire community as the nation’s enemy. The crime of a single member of that community becomes the crime of the whole community, for which any random member could be punished. Such is the twisted logic of the paranoid mind.
Think of the reaction in the rest of the country to the unbelievably harsh repression unleashed on Kashmir. It has been more than four months that normal life has been suspended there. Communications have been thoroughly disrupted and independent reporting is still a fraught exercise given the internet ban and other arbitrary restrictions.
Most people elsewhere in India have been led to believe that since many Kashmiris were known to be militants trained in Pakistan, the entire population should be made to suffer collective punishment. It is hard to find anyone who feels sympathy for Kashmiris. It is harder still to suggest that what has now become legitimate in Kashmir could next be done to some other part of the country. That line of thought would disturb the comfortable certainty of the decisive solution.
Could the constant stirring of paranoia and the promise of certain resolutions go on endlessly? These days, the governing of populations under conditions of electoral democracy has become the business of experts skilled in mobilising the textual and audio-visual resources of the entire range of communications technology. The passions of the masses are no longer shaped by the mysterious and unpredictable forces of rumour and gossip. They can now be manipulated, played one against the other, and the desired result secured.
If the BJP fails to suitably tinker its national strategy to the variety of local peculiarities in the regions, it may well face electoral reverses in this or that state. But at least at this time, it seems unlikely that there is anything that will stop it from continuing to whip up the national state of paranoia and force all institutions of government and public life to submit to the dominant popular sentiment. Few will stand up and say, “Leaders must lead, not follow the public mood, because what seems to be the public mood is often mistaken.”
Partha Chatterjee is a social scientist and historian.