CJ Werleman on how mob violence against those protesting the Indian Government’s anti-Muslim citizenship laws is taking its cue from state violence dished out by the police and influenced by politicians.
A discernible feature of a failing state, or one on the brink of failing, is the way in which right-wing militias and vigilantes operate with tacit approval of the central government, essentially carrying out the dirty work of the state. In the name of “security”, they claim to fill gaps in the state’s monopoly of violence.
It is a dynamic that has played out with gruesome outcomes throughout Africa, South America and Asia time and time again, but it is also one that has visited European democracies. The fewer than the three decades-old mass graveyards of the Balkans lay testimony to that, as do the right-wing vigilante groups who began patrolling the streets of Germany in response to the Syrian refugee crisis in recent times.
Last year, the German Interior Ministry warned that citizen militias roaming throughout the country’s towns were the “beginnings of a right-wing terrorist potential”, adding that it was a short leap from vigilantism to “advocacy of security and order separate from the state monopoly on the use of force, or even to a violent act”.
India, which is meant to be the world’s largest democracy, is a contemporary case study of a state that, until very recently, held a monopoly on the use of force within its borders and is now outsourcing this violence, tacitly or implicitly, to right-wing militias and armed street thugs.
Its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been unable to suppress nationwide protests against the Government’s anti-Muslim citizenship laws – known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) – via force or other means, and is now turning to pro-Government groups to carry out its dirty work, as evidenced by a series of unrelated attacks on protestors in recent weeks.
Last week, a gunman fired towards anti-CAA protestors at New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, an all-women sit-in site considered the epicentre of nationwide protests against the Government’s assault on the country’s democratic constitution.
According to witnesses, the man shouted “only Hindus will prevail in this country. This country is ours” before firing his weapon. The suspect was arrested, but when a similar incident took place at a protest rally held outside New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI), police stood by and watched on as a 17-year-old Hindu nationalist fired his weapon towards protestors, wounding a student from Indian-occupied Kashmir.
On Tuesday, hundreds of right-wing nationalists converged on JMI’s campus, chanting anti-Muslim slogans and shouting “shoot the bastards”. Eyewitnesses again alleged that the police did nothing to disperse the mob, despite them threatening to commit murderous acts.
If it seems as though the security apparatus of the state is a willing accomplice, then this is because the country’s right-wing political leaders are openly urging violence against those peacefully protesting the Government’s anti-Muslim citizenship laws.
what the papers don’t say
Last week, Anurag Thakur, India’s Junior Finance Minister, encouraged supporters at a state election rally in New Delhi to chant slogans calling for “traitors to be shot”, while Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, warned protestors “bullets will surely work” if they don’t “listen to reason.” It is little wonder that a majority of the more than two-dozen protestors killed since the anti-CAA protests began in mid-December died at the hands of Uttar Pradesh police.
“I will f*ck your mother,” one Uttar Pradesh police officer told a 73-year-old Muslim woman, according to The Guardian. “I am going to throw all your family members in jail, where they will rot for life. I will destroy your family.”
There are widespread accounts of police arresting protestors on false charges, indiscriminately firing live ammunition rounds into Muslim neighbourhoods, and torturing detainees, including women and children. It is from here that right-wing militias and pro-Government vigilante groups are taking their cues to target their perceived enemies with violence.
Scholars of armed conflict have long examined how the normalisation of state violence and the delegitimisation of leftist or liberal opponents of government provides a space for right-wing, sub-state actors to carry out acts of violence and even mass murder with de facto impunity – which is where India finds itself today.
When it comes to hate crimes carried out by Hindus against religious minorities, the Modi Government has created a “culture of impunity”, according to Amnesty International.
“The Government failed to prevent or credibly investigate growing mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalised communities, and critics of the Government – often carried out by groups claiming to support the Government,” according to a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, some senior BJP leaders publicly supported perpetrators of such crimes, made inflammatory speeches against minority communities, and promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence.”
Protests against the Indian Government are only set to grow, uniting Muslims with Hindus and other religious minorities in the country like never before – as illustrated by the recent formation of a 620 kilometre human chain that started in Kerala and ended in Kaliyakkavilai.
Will the Modi Government change course by acquiescing to demands that it upholds the democratic laws and ideals prescribed in the country’s constitution, or will it double down with the use of violence, outsourced or otherwise, in order to fulfill its Hindu supremacist goals?