Women rally in New Delhi against the persecution of Muslims in India. Photo: AFP/Raveendran

Hafiz Junaid, a 16-year-old boy, was killed on June 22 on a train by a mob because he was a Muslim. The youth had been returning from Delhi with his brother and two friends after shopping for Eid, the Muslim festival immortalized by India’s foremost Hindustani writer, Munshi Premchand, in his story Idgah, celebrating the “joy of living”.

But what happened on that train was the “joy of killing”.

This was not an isolated incident. Vigilante terror is sweeping parts of India, legitimizing violence and causing a failure of the rule of law in the country.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, since May 2015 at least 10 Muslims, including a 12-year-old boy, have been killed in seven separate incidents of mob violence related to the Hindu radical cow-protection campaign.

Hindu cultural groups inspired by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and supported by its political face – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have formed thousands of cow-protection brigades across the country, beating and killing Muslims, who are associated with the cattle trade and beef consumption, which is considered sacrilegious by a majority of Hindus.

Muslim minority suffers hostility

The perpetrators were not punished in any of the cases because of their belief in the ideology of Hindutva, which advises exclusion and hostility toward Muslims, a 180-million-strong religious minority in India, whose total population is 1.3 billion.

The ruling BJP ministers have either denied or played down the killings, while the prime minister made a passing note of the grave matter.

For a couple of decades, Hindutva, a predominant form of Hindu nationalism, has grown. Its first major vigilante act was the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque in Uttar Pradesh state by several RSS-affiliated parties and groups such as the BJP, Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, some of whom are currently being prosecuted in court.

The BJP benefited from the Babri demolition and subsequent riots, which polarized the country’s Hindu majority and led to a coalition government in 1998.

Yogi Adityanath, a BJP member of parliament, founded a vigilante group, Hindu Yuva Vahini, in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 2002 to confront Muslims on so-called “love jihad“, beef, and conversion.

Unrest helps boost BJP

By 2014, Adityanath’s organization had spread vigilante terror through relentless attacks against Muslims for their cultural and religious practices. Aided by riots elsewhere in UP, the BJP won 71 of 80 parliamentary seats, paving the way for Narendra Modi to become prime minister. Modi had faced allegations of collusion in the 2002 Gujarat riots while he was chief minister of the state.

Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister of UP in March when the BJP secured a three-fourths majority in the state assembly elections. He continues to be the chief patron of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, which faces criminal charges related to lethal riots in Gorakhpur in 2007 and Mau in 2005.

Vigilantism against Muslims seems to be aimed at the subjugation of minorities. With Yogi Adityanath becoming chief minister in UP, India’s largest state, Hindu vigilante politics has been legitimized, with serious implications.

Leaders emerging out of vigilante politics tend to be authoritarian because they are the product of hate, anger and violence and need to appear tough and decisive. They realize that they are in power despite the Indian constitution and therefore need not care for it more than it suits them.

Personal freedoms under threat

Beginning with UP, people across the country are unable to enjoy personal freedoms such as where to go, whom to befriend and marry, or what to eat and say. Under the present regime, people are being prevented from being normal adult human beings.

In a press briefing, UP police claimed that under the anti-Romeo campaign they questioned nearly 700,500 people and warned nearly half that number in a one-month period.

After assuming power, the new chief minister of UP closed slaughterhouses, causing a domino effect across the Hindu heartland and leading to new rules by the central government under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

The new rules have in effect wiped out the meat industry, depriving millions of Muslims and Dalits of a means of livelihood and a cheap source of food. In other words, neither culture nor constitution but an elected leader from the majority community has been able to determine citizens’ diet and nature of work.

One major difference between an authoritarian and a totalitarian regime is that in the former some institutions are beyond the control of the government. In India, the judiciary, economic institutions, and media may fall into this category. However, the present government has tried to emasculate all of them.

Independence of high court challenged

The government rejected 43 of the 77 names that the Supreme Court Collegium had recommended for appointment to various high courts. The government is battling for control of the appointment of judges after the Supreme Court struck down the National Judicial Appointment Commission Act asserting its independence and autonomy under the constitution.

On November 8, without consulting the Reserve Bank of India, Modi declared 86% of country’s currency frozen, causing hardship, chaos and the deaths of more than 150 people across the country in what economist and philosopher Amartya Sen called a “despotic action”.

The government raided a prominent TV news channel, NDTV, after the ruling party’s spokesman accused the media outlet of bias in a live news program. Noted constitutional expert Fali Nariman termed the raid an act to delegitimize the media further.

In a society where violence is legitimized to achieve political ends, totalitarian tendencies emerge at the expense of rule of law, order and civility. However, given India’s long tradition of pluralism and the Gandhian legacy, these aberrations are likely to be fiercely challenged, drawing additional battle lines in the country.

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Pushkar Raj

Pushkar Raj is a researcher and author based in Melbourne. Formerly he taught political science in Delhi University and was the national general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

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