Videographed murders and Christmas terror. Karni Sena and Kim Jong-un. Anti-Romeo squads and Harvey Weinstein. Cow vigilantism and caste aggression. 2017 has been a tumultuous rap sheet of adventurism, intimidation and violence.
The future is the cartography of opportunity, while the past is the coda of perspective. The year that passed drafted the blueprint of aggressive economic reform, with GST providing a controversial engine of growth by adding millions of new tax payers by rationalising a chaotic tax regime. As much as 2017 was the year of tax reform, it was also when perspective shrunk into the periscope of aggression and ambition. A series of unsavoury incidents—from Bollywood-baiting, religious re-coding, sexual exploitation, nuclear belligerence to assassinations—made 2017 the Year of the Bully. The bully sees himself as the self-righteous custodian of values, culture; even civilisation. What makes him dangerous is his lack of respect for the law, because he believes the system has been subverted since it doesn’t conform to his sense of order. In the process, he justifies the use of violence and intimidation as legitimate solutions. The bully is the emergent face of Evil on India’s social, political and cultural landscape where some of these values segue darkly to form a tabula rasa of violence.
The bully comes in many shapes, sizes and qualifications. Over the last three years, Hinduism has acquired unsolicited champions, who have chosen violence as a marketing device. In spite of the Modi government’s express disapproval, small towns and villages in the cowbelt have become their unabashed playground. For the murderer Shambhu Lal Regar from Rajasthan, faith and technology combine to be the medium of his blood-soaked message. The downside of development is that technology has empowered perpetrators of violence to record rapes and murders for posterity. It’s the classic bully syndrome of challenging authority to take action against their belligerence, which is flaunted without repentance. Regar recorded his murder of a migrant Muslim labourer, burning his body. He posted the video online, warning “jihadis” to leave India or meet a similar fate. Police identified the body as that of 50-year-old Afrazul, a labourer from West Bengal. Now it has transpired that Afrazul was not the real target; it was another man whose love affairs Shambhu disapproved of.
Disapproval becomes an expression of violence when religion and politics mix. The bogey this time was conversion and the victim was Santa Claus. A group of self-appointed custodians of Hinduism attacked carol singers and set a priest’s car on fire in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district. The police—one of India’s most prominent bullies— registered a case and promptly arrested the Christians. The Hindu Jagran Manch, with penchant for taking photographs of sword-carrying bullies, had followed up with the intention of disrupting Christmas celebrations in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh. Moving swiftly to prevent embarrassment, the Yogi Adityanath government cracked down on their threats against schools celebrating Christmas. The Manch activists believe Christmas gifts are a prelude to conversion. The UP government has ordered them to sign `10 lakh bonds with an assurance that they will not disrupt Christmas celebrations in schools.
This year, Rajasthan has gone from being the land of maharajas to a state of permanent aggression. Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena founder Lokendra Singh Kalvi is without doubt the historical conservative of 2017. Exploiting Rajput anger over Bollywood’s insult to the legend of Queen Padmavati, Kalvi sought to redefine himself as a politician. He sought the intervention of the Mewar royal family in clearing Padmavati. Then he invoked the spectre of the underworld, accusing Dawood Ibrahim of financing Sanjay Leela Bhansali with “hundreds of crores of rupees”. Having got all the prime time hours he needed, Kalvi’s next step was to go national. His agenda graduated to Kashmir. Former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah, seeking relevance in his strife-torn home state, had challenged the Modi government to hoist the Tricolour at Lal Chowk in Srinagar before pledging to do so in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The Karni Sena vowed to send its members to raise the national flag at Lal Chowk on August 15, 2018. A nationalist consolidation of the fringe semed to be cooking as the Sena declared, “We, along with other Hindu outfits, will go to Kashmir and hoist the Tricolour on August 15 (next year). We dare Farooq Abdullah to stop us.” The fact that Farooq is not in power and has no official or organisational might to stop them did not seem relevant. In 2008, the Sena had opposed the film Jodhaa Akbar asserting Jodhaa was Jehangir’s wife. In 1987, he had sought to capitalise on Rajput pride by agitating against the Sati ban following Roop Kanwar’s self-immolation in 1987. He had unsuccessfully tried his luck with the Rajput reservation issue by launching an agitation for the pan-caste poor. The irony of Kalvi’s politics is that he is a nationalist with a pro-poor agenda who is channelising wrath into a political movement. “Being taken for a right wing leader, he is diluting the BJP’s image,” says a ruling party MP who doesn’t want to be named, “The Prime Minister is speaking of development, growth and social empowerment while they (Karni Sena) are turning the issue into a tamasha.’’
The bully’s fanatical faith in his convictions makes him dangerous in democracy, which absorbs contradictions. Two motorcycle-riding killers gunned down crusading journalist Gauri Lankesh in front of her home on September 5. In spite of CCTV clips, no arrest has been made so far. Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha leader Pandit Ashok Sharma pronounced a death sentence on actor Kamal Haasan for speaking of ‘Hindu terror’. Pandit said, “The likes of him should either be shot dead or hanged so that they learn a lesson.” The social and communal backlash to years of appeasement politics has created a new Hindu, who doesn’t rule out violence as option to settle matters of faith. The subversive effect of the bully is energised by the absence of police action against people who openly call for murdering opponents. Some are even emboldened by it.
Narendra Modi cracked down on murderous gau rakshaks on the lookout for suspected cow smugglers. The bullying had become so prevalent in cow belt India that transporters were refusing to carry cattle on their vehicles since the drivers were fearful of marauding lynch mobs. After Yogi Adityanath became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, anti-Romeo squads became legal protection against eve-teasing, until a TV channel exposed a cop promising to frame innocent men for bribes. Their genus is ánti-Majnoo (a description of amorous youngsters by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan who had claimed that the roads of his state were better than in the US)—the same crowd of activists who attack young couples on Valentine’s Day. Meanwhile in Kerala, the National Investigation Agency found evidence of theological bullying through ‘love jihad’, making it a cause célebre that is bound to polarise Malayali society.
Defence of public morality and claim to religious purity is the bully’s call sign. Confrontations and threats are his tools. Conservatism is his ideology. Ultra-Islamic clerics have been using intimidation as instruments of god’s will. They took to the streets, even lassoing in Muslim women in protest against the Supreme Court judgement which declared triple talaq unconstitutional. Shayara Bano, the sociology graduate who was forced to undergo several abortions because her husband wouldn’t get a vasectomy or tubectomy, because he believed they were “haram” and was divorced through triple talaq, had won the judgment from the Supreme Court. Her co-litigant, the less educated Ishrat Jahan, is now ostracised by her community for her role in the affair.
A Deoband fatwa exists which states triple talaq is valid. The Muslim Personal Law Board mysteriously decreed that though it is “wrong”, it is valid. The fatwa-spewing bully has been around for decades, ready to defend any interpretation of religion, which doesn’t correspond to the Wahhabi version. The male bully isn’t confirmed to Muslim clerics and terrorists alone. The Harvey Weinstein affair, which exposed the powerful Hollywood producer’s sexual coercion that has led to rape in some cases, blew the lid off sexual predators in the entertainment industry. In the wake of its fallout, famous actors were exposed as exploitative homosexuals with paedophilic predilections. Even George Bush Senior was not spared. The list was an indictment of male bullies across fields such as politics, entertainment, media and corporate. Rajasthan, where the honour of woman is the war cry of the anti-Padmavati rioters, ranks fourth in crime against women in the country. Uttar Pradesh tops the list. If religious activism has spawned a new breed of bully, there is no greater bully in India than caste. Lower castes are forced to lick their own spittle on roads. A caste conflagration in Saharanpur between upper castes and Dalits in May left ghost villages in its wake.
The internet, swarming with trolls of all persuasions, was a playground in 2017 for a new kind of cyberbully—the social jihadi. And cricketers, India’s alter-gods, were their targets. Irfan Pathan was savagely trolled for posting a photo of himself wearing a rakhi on Raksha Bandhan, accused of being un-Islamic and committing a sin. Previously, another cricketer Mohammad Kaif was attacked by Islamic online trolls for posting a photo of himself and his son playing chess. Kaif is used to it; another picture of himself doing Surya Namaskar had invited their ire. The previous year, bowler Mohammed Shami, was hit by social media invective for posting a family picture in which his wife was not wearing a hijab. England all-rounder Moeen Ali was troll-bait for having sketched Vivian Richards, since drawing is considered ‘anti-Islam’. Pakistan once again was proved the bully’s paradise: a free Hafiz Saeed demanded to be de-tagged as a terrorist while Syed Salahuddin promised to carry on his war with India.
North Korea, which had received its nuclear technology from Pakistan, proved to be a superbully against American bully Donald Trump. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has been threatening to obliterate the US with missile power. In early December, North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile with a “super-large heavy warhead”, which is capable of nuking the US mainland, prompting Hawai to test its missile raid warning systems. Trump is not backing off: a bully versus bully nightmare with two trigger-happy nuclear leaders is a frightening scenario. Kim has threatened Japan, too, testing missiles in its proximity.
North Korea’s steadfast ally China was the bully on India’s border. The 70-day Doklam standoff between Indian and Chinese troops over the PLA building a road through the disputed territory between Bhutan and China had raised the spectre of a war after 1962. China did not expect India to counter with aggression videos of Indian soldiers pummelling their Chinese counterparts that showed the prevailing tension between both armies. The then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley warned, “India of 2017 is different from what it was in 1962”.
In 2017, both India and the world changed on many parameters. The world’s most terrifying bully Islamic State is on the run, but its bloody echoes claimed over 500 lives when bombs exploded in a Cairo mosque on December 8. At home, aggressive fringe outfits are wading into the national mainstream brandishing the weapons of culture and nationalism. The bully is taking the narrative away from the agenda of development to a grey horizon where aggressiveness is the norm and interpretation becomes the truth.