Intimidation, Lynchings and Vigilante Justice: The New Normal in Fundamentalist India

It is not every day that one of India’s foremost constitutional experts, a jurist par excellence, takes the bull by its horns and issues a dire warning. Pulling no punches, Fali Nariman directly challenged India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, about the appointment of Adityanath, a ‘Yogi,’ as chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The state saw the supremacist BJP being swept to power on March 11, and Nariman asked whether this ‘is the beginning of a Hindu state'.


Asked which citizens' rights he worries about, he said, "The Constitution is under threat. With the massive electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh, a priest has been installed as the chief minister at the insistence of the prime minister... is a signal and if you cannot see then either you are the spokespersons of political parties or you must have your head or eyes examined."

On May 14, with the election of an RSS pracharak as prime minister, the stranglehold of an organization, wedded to the conversion of the Indian Republic to a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Theocratic State), became real. Today, 11 Indian states are governed by this ideology—in four others, the BJP is in alliance with another party. The overwhelming presence of this supremacist, anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian worldview is both real and threatening. Over the past 35 months, the legislative overreach by the stranglehold of this ideology has seen seminal changes in India’s laws that are becoming more and more exclusivist and majoritarian. On the economic front, the sway of corporate capital over the executive is evident as it is over large sections of the electronic and print media.

Despite these overall disturbing trends, March 11 marked another dangerous threshold. The BJP’s electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh, made possible by the splintered vote allowing a 39 per cent consolidation to creep past into victory, was followed by a brazen decision to allow the ‘high command’ (the name for the Modi-Amit Shah combine) to anoint Adityanath, a five-times elected official to India’s parliament. He is a man against whom over a dozen criminal cases are pending, including for inciting speech and leading violence against the state’s minorities. The sheer brazenness of the decision was at first widely criticized after which even the media seemed to adjust itself to the new Indian normal.

The normal under Modi, now accelerated under Adityanath, has not been the development dream so artfully crafted by the Indian and foreign campaign managers and corporates of the 2014 campaign. The new normal, much like the post-truth reality in another large democracy, the United States, has been an atmosphere of fear, threat and intimidation dotted by shameful incidents for public lynchings and killings as the ‘non-state actors’ so closely allied to the Modi regime. Significantly, the targets have been, largely India’s Muslims and Dalits.

This trend that began soon after Modi gained power has received further push and fillip with the new supremacist star on the Indian political firmament, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath. The past ten days have been dotted by shameful attacks on minority-run meat, chicken shops and establishments, a trend that has fortunately drawn the ire of the High Court of Lucknow. The brazenly anti-woman ‘anti-Romeo’ squads, that have been targeting young men and women who freely associate each other. Iin fact, this is also a crafted policy of the Hindu Right to ensure that ‘Hindu girls’ do not co-habit with ‘others.’

“Anti-Romeo Squads” are policemen and women and vigilante groups, operating outside the purview of law, with the support of the Uttar Pradesh State, which threaten women’s freedoms. They purport to deal with the issue of sexual harassment. These “squads” impose their own aggressive and arbitrary code through moral policing. It has already come to light that, in many cases, these “anti-Romeo squads” have become an even greater source of harassment and fear for women and men, which has been acknowledged by the DG Police UP in his order of March 22 and March 25, 2017. Unfortunately, this very order also opens up the doorway for moral policing, as it talks of “leaving alone couples in public spaces if their conduct is well within the traditional code.” The term traditional code is ambiguous and not defined, which once again allows police and public interference into the people’s privacy and the excesses thereof.

A vulgar and ominous display of vigilantism and police complicity was evidenced on March 22, 2017 when a marauding band of vigilante residents, on finding a boy and girl moving around together in a part of Shahjanpur, tonsured the youth (shaved his head) with the police mutely watching. The video was shared and went viral on social media. The media did not widely report the incident, although it was carried by the news agency PTI and a small news item in the Deccan Herald newspaper tells a lonely tale.

It is in the name of ‘cow protection’ that Muslims have been killed and lynched and their businesses targeted. The issue raises serious questions about the right to life, liberty, association, business and equality before the law. Within days of the laissez faire granted to police and lynch mobs by the Uttar Pradesh government, neighboring Rajasthan—also ruled by the same party—saw a dairy farmer, Pehlu Khan, being lynched to death by marauders. A video shared on Facebook was suppressed until sections of the independent media published it.

Even worse, a Modi Minister from the Central Indian Cabinet, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, dared to say, in the lower house of the Indian Parliament on April 5 that “No such incident took place as described by opposition in the house.” This had triggered angry protests from opposition parties in the parliament. The helpless survivor to Pehlu Khan’s murder, his brother, was asked whether he wanted the prime minister Narendra Modi or Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia to condemn the incident. He said, “We are helpless people. We want them to speak, we will listen. What else can we do but listen?”

The statement of the Modi Minister, who happened to be a Muslim, was belied by statements of the local police to the media that the Muslim traders were attacked even though they showed documents to establish they had purchased the cows legitimately. No arrests have reportedly been made so far.

Since Adityanath’s appointment, several BJP officials have ruled states, and their chief ministers have been in a race to announce severe punishments for ‘cow slaughter.’ Modi’s home state of Gujarat passed a law making the crime liable to a life sentence. A day after Jharkhand followed in the footsteps of Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath by clamping down on illegal slaughterhouses, the crackdown spread to four more BJP-ruled states with Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh swooping down on ‘unauthorized’ meat and chicken shops. Traders and small businessmen were not even served a notice as is necessary for any society governed by the rule of law.

This kind of authoritarian, lawless and even unconstitutional actions by many state executives under the BJP have been made possible because they are governed by men and women who belong to the supremacist RSS. This virtual takeover by the RSS bodes ill for the very survival of India as a republic based on the constitution. Today, there are as many as nine chief ministers of the BJP or, for that matter, the RSS pracharaks. They are: Manoharlal Khattar of Haryana, Trivendra Singh Rawat of Uttarakhand, Biren Singh of Manipur, Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra, Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Mandya Pradesh, Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh, Manohar Parrikar of Goa, Raghubar Das of Jharkand and the latest to join the list of RSS pariva is Adityanath Yogi of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India with 80 Lok Sabha seats. These men do not owe their allegiance to the Indian republic and the constitution but to a rigid and hardened worldview that is committed to the overthrow of the Republic and the institution of Hindu rashtra (nation). Twenty-four hours ago, Adityanath brazenly claimed that there “was nothing wrong with the concept of Hindu Rashtra.”

Within days and weeks of this anti-democratic and unlawful crackdown on meat and chicken shops and slaughter houses, citizens were running to the courts to get their rights re-instated. Case after case shows that it is the cynical tardiness of local authorities, most controlled by the BJP itself, that have delayed the issuance of fresh licenses after the Supreme Court and Green Tribunal laid down guidelines for the conduct of these businesses. As many as 4,000 illegal shops face closure by this weekend in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, with the municipal corporation announcing its crackdown in April. One shop was shut in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.

Meat sellers have claimed 950 of these 4,000 shops were authorized, but it was the Jaipur Muncipal Corporation (JMC) which did not renew their licenses after March 31 last year. Offcialdom had poor excuses to offer for their failure to inspect and certify this trade and business. A JMC official said the licenses could not be renewed, as the municipal body had approved a proposal for increasing license fee from Rs 10 to Rs 1.000, but the gazette notification had not been issued. This despite the directorate of local bodies (DLB) clearing the file on license fee hike and sending it back to JMC. “We are not at fault as we have filed applications for renewal of licenses. However, our applications were not accepted. We will protest against the JMC's drive,” Abdul Raquf Khurshi, president, New Jaipur Meat Association told the media.

That was Rajasthan. In Uttar Pradesh, the High Court has already sharply pulled up both the Uttar Pradesh government and the local authorities. Ironically, in the climate of the ‘new normal’ in India, even print national media did not report court proceedings for the first week after salutary orders were passed while the Urdu media and a handful of free media portals showcased the judicial reprimands.

By March 29, the first rap by the High Court of Gujarat pulled up Adityanath. Six days before that, the Uttar Pradesh police—following no law, not even a written order by the newly-instated ‘Yogi Adityanath’—shut down slaughterhouses and ‘illegal’ butcher shops across numerous cities in Uttar Pradesh, including Ghazipur, Gorakhpur, Gonda, Kannauj, Hardoi, Kanpur, Varanasi, Jaunpur and Azamgarh. Three butcher shops were gutted in Hathras, and arson by cow vigilantes has not been ruled out in the burning down of the Hathras shops. The frightening levels of vigilantism empowered local police and even non-state actors close to the Hindu right to raid Muslim wedding parties, a clear sign as to what space and place this rabid version of the ‘Hindu nation’ gave to freedom of choice, food, culture, difference and dissent. That such rank unlawfulness was taking place in full public view under the diktats of a ‘democratically elected chief minister’ makes the implications even more chilling.

The response from the higher judiciary has so far, on the issue of the meat crackdown at least, been heartening. A controversial order by the same high court on the ‘anti-Romeo squads’ has however been roundly criticized by civil libertarians and feminists.

Issuing directions April 3 on a plea by Saeed Ahmad, who said he had a valid licence to sell goat meat in Lakhimpur Kheri but it was not being renewed in view of the drive against illegal slaughterhouses across the state, Justices Amreshwar Pratap Sahi and Sanjay Harkauli said: “Health, culture, personal food habits, socio-economic status of society, availability of foodstuff at affordable prices, the convenience of availability, contents, quality and strength of foodstuff essential to life, and a balance of such competing rights under the secular umbrella of the Constitution are all issues that need deliberation before any overt or covert action is taken. It should not appear to be abrupt for those who are at the receiving end and should not be legally unconstitutional.”

“Food habits in this state have flourished and are an essential part of life as an element of the secular culture that has come to exist and is common amongst all sections of the society. Compliance of law should not end in deprivation, the cause whereof may be attributable to the inaction of the state… We have put on record the above indicators so that the state while taking decisions does not lose sight of the dimensions and repercussions of the consequences that are likely to follow and affect the public at large. This will also aid the state in informing the court about the measures it proposes to take in this regard,” the judges said.

“The inaction of the state government in the past should not be a shield for imposing a state of almost prohibition. To provide an immediate check on unlawful activity should be simultaneous with facilitating the carrying of lawful activity, particularly that relating to food, food habits and vending thereof that is undisputedly connected with the right to life and livelihood. Food that is conducive to health cannot be treated as a wrong choice and it is for this reason that provisions are obligated on the state to be made available for maintaining the requirement of supply of healthy foodstuff,” the bench said.

In a related matter, the administration has been directed to renew licenses within a week. The deliberate and obdurateness of the Lucknow Municipal Corporation and other local authorities is today endangering the livelihoods of approximately 400 meat/slaughter shops and their employees, despite the fact that owners of these establishments have been with regularity applying not just for renewal of their licenses but supporting the need for a mechanized slaughterhouse.
 
The matter has become acute especially given the arbitrary actions of the newly-elected BJP government that, with no concern for rules or due process, has authorized policemen to go around intimidating and bullying meat shop owners and traders. Over 90 percent of these belong to the Muslim Quraish community. No notices have been served on any of the meat traders or slaughter houses, against whom such violent and arbitrary actions have been unleashed.
 
On March 28, independent media reported on the writ petition on which the Lucknow Bench of the High Court had asked serious questions to the administration. A reading of this petition is instructive.  During the hearing of the matter of March 27, the HC directed the District Administration Ordered to Explain Non-Renewal of Licenses. Moreover, the state government was asked to produce chief minister Adityanath’s directive before the Court. The 2005 words of India’s Supreme Court are worth recalling:

After all, butchers are practicing a trade and it is their fundamental right under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, which is guaranteed to all Citizens of India. Moreover, it is not a matter of the proprietor of the butchery shop alone. There may also be several workmen therein who may become unemployed if the Slaughter Houses are closed……. One of the conditions of the license given to the shop owners is to supply meat regularly in the City……. Closer of these meat shops would not therefore be proper. Also, a large number of people are non-vegetarian and they cannot be compelled to become vegetarian. What one eats is one’s personal affair and it is a part of his right to privacy, which is recorded in Article 21 of out Constitution.

Law the constitution, equal rights and freedoms do not much concern the proponents of this version of the Hindu Nation. They control much of state power in India, it is a question of thrusting down narrow interpretations of faith and practice, in a militarized and authoritarian framework for all to follow. Quotes abound, but the newly-appointed chief minister of India’s largest state has been quoted to have said, “Hinduism is a different culture. Islam is a different culture. They can’t coexist. Two cultures cannot coexist. It will cause friction. There definitely will be.” These sorts of views are not just dangerous and divisive. They threaten the foundations of India’s syncretic and equality-based citizenship.

Not all of India, and certainly not all Indians, buy into this violent and aggressive re-branding of the nation. “Meat and Milk are Two Sides of the same coin,” dairy farmer Rajeev Gupta so eloquently told the Indian Express. “Animals are animals anyway. Life can be nasty, brutish and short for male cattle and a little comfortable for the female ones. The fate of every cattle head is slaughter, whether you accept it or not. Actually, meat and milk are just two sides of the same coin,” he says, before heading home, within the premises of the cattle pen, at around 11 pm.

“If dairy producers are not allowed to slaughter male calves and spent, sick or injured cows, it has considerable implications for animal welfare as well as meat and leather production,” says another.

The fallout of this, as a 2012 census by the Animal Husbandry Department revealed, is that there are 5.3 million stray cattle abandoned by their owners across the country, almost one million of whom are in urban areas. But statistics, reason and rationality are not the strong points of those in power today. No wonder then that an elected official of the BJP, an MLA, Vikram Saini, just recently thundered,” [We] Will break limbs of those who slaughter cows,” shrugging off all allegiance to the Rule of Law. Or the Indian Constitution.

Not only have such repeated threats emboldened the law breakers, but they emanate from a Modi, an Adityanath, a Shah and hundreds of others has cloaked India within a blanket of immunity, worse than ever more, leaving our roads and streets free to those who wield hate, blood and gore.

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