Free Press Journal

When violence becomes a political tool


(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s expectation about a “Godhra moment” sooner or later after Narendra Modi’s ascent hasn’t come true in the way the Congress leader thought that it might.

Instead of a major riot as in Gujarat in 2002, what is seen at present is a steady spread of violence under various guises, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation with an anti-Muslim sub-text. The latest manifestation of this tense environment is the row over the film, Padmavati.

A key feature of this fraught milieu is the immunity which the rowdy elements associated with the saffron dispensation enjoy from the long arm of the law. It may amount to overstating the case to suggest that the lawless groups and the police work hand in hand. But what is clear is that the guardians of the law are palpably reluctant to act against those who violate the law with impunity.

Even when arrests are made, the accused are let off within a short period of time by the courts for lack of evidence about their wrong-doing. Since the legal system is based wholly on the proofs of the offence committed by the suspects provided by the prosecution, the courts cannot but free the accused in the absence of any substantive corroboration of their crime.

It is difficult to believe that the failure of the police to prove the culpability of the offenders is inadvertent. The fact that as many as 2,000 cases had to be closed in Gujarat in 2002 is relevant in this context. Some of the more important cases subsequently had to be tried outside Gujarat to ensure a fair trial for the victims of saffron violence.

It would appear, therefore, that the police become somewhat lax in gathering evidence for presentation before the court in states run by the BJP if the offenders are linked to the party.

Nothing showed this curious inability of the police to nail the guilty than the ease with which the killers of Pehlu Khan were allowed to go scot-free although their murderous attack on the cattle trader in broad daylight in a Rajasthan town was captured on camera and shown repeatedly by television channels.

It is not surprising that the leeway which those who take the law into their own hands seem to enjoy in the BJP-ruled states has emboldened the self-proclaimed upholders of Rajput pride to threaten the director and the leading actress of the film, Padmavati, with dire consequences on the suspicion of an erroneous portrayal of the life and times of the fabled queen of Mewar, Padmavati or Padmini, in the early 14th century.

The political objective behind the official inaction against the transgressions of the law is obvious. In view of the impending elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh and the polls early next year in Rajasthan, the home of the Rajputs, the BJP would not like to antagonize a Hindu group which is likely to vote for it.

But there is another possible, less obvious reason. It is that the BJP is, at present, so sure of its political clout, especially in northern and western India, that it simply does not care if there is a feeling of outrage among those who are ostensibly not its supporters over the acts of violence.

It is a safe bet that no amount of coverage by the English language media – the Sangh Parivar’s longstanding bete noire – will make the BJP act decisively against the law-breakers. True, its leaders will make anodyne statements about the law following its own course and the primacy of constitutional governance.

But the BJP knows perfectly well that its formal commitments to uphold the rule of law make no impression on its storm-troopers who are aware of their value as the party’s foot soldiers during elections.

True, other parties, too, harbour unruly cadres. Among them are the CPI(M) in Kerala (and earlier in West Bengal) and the Samajwadi Party in UP. To most people, therefore, the acts of lawlessness are par for the course and are expected to be quietly borne – if one is not directly affected – and may even make for “entertaining” television shows.

It is no secret that the use of violence as a political tool has long been prevalent, apparently as a legacy of the anarchist tactics directed at the colonial rulers. In independent India, one of the most egregious instances of politically-inspired violence was when polling booths were captured by goons at the behest of otherwise respectable political leaders.

Mercifully, such distortions of the electoral process have become a thing of the past. But as cow vigilantism and attacks on artistes –which made MF Husain go into exile – and on filmmakers show, violence remains a handy weapon in the armoury of politicians.

In extreme cases, there are also targeted killings as of rationalists by suspected Right-wing groups and the guerrilla warfare of the Left extremists. In addition, of course, India faces the terrorism of Islamic militants.

But it is the continuing violence against people who run afoul of the Parivar’s diverse prejudices on the cow or on history, which is a blot on India’s claim to modernity.

The author is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal.