The flavour of what is to come in the context of electoral rhetoric in the forthcoming Assembly elections in five states, given the nature of rhetoric in the past, is predictable. In West Bengal, it was crass and uncivil. That trend is not likely to change given what is at stake. The most crucial outcome that will be tracked with great interest will be in Uttar Pradesh. That result may impact the electoral outcome of the Lok Sabha in 2024.
Amit Shah, on 17 December 2021, as he was bound to do, extolled the virtues of Yogi Adityanath. One virtue that Shah said stood out was Yogi’s success in cleaning the state from “mafia and goons”. He alleged that both the BSP and SP gave them protection while under the present chief minister “all mafia members migrated from the state”. A tall claim without understanding as to what the term ‘mafia’ stands for. The term ‘mafia’, as defined, is “a close group of people who are involved in similar activities and who help and protect each other, sometimes to the disadvantage of others”. It is a definition that fits the bill, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, considering the let loose vigilante groups and goons who go about instilling fear with muscle power and the ostensible tacit support of some of those responsible for maintaining law and order.
Mafia and goons have scant respect for the law. At a recent conclave in Haridwar, we saw the spectacle of what lies aheads—speeches spewing venom and openly calling for genocide. Ironically, for lesser deeds, often trenchant criticism of the regime in UP has attracted sedition and offences under the UAPA. For what transpired in Haridwar, spreading communal hatred to say the least under police watch, is clearly made out. Yet no arrest. The least the police should have done was to register an FIR on their own. These are not isolated incidents. A network of organisations with deep roots violate the law ever so frequently and with impunity.
The focus of Yogi’s free from mafia claim falls far short of the truth. The Hindutva ideology, from cow slaughter to love jihad, is an attempt to act to the disadvantage of a community with the help of a close group of people of a particular ideological mould, carrying this agenda to its logical end
The RSS, with its tentacles spread far and wide along with a dense network of affiliates and organisations like the Hindu Yuva Vahini, Bajrang Dal and smaller groups sprouting in almost every district, have their footprints across the state. The members of a particular community are victimised for not chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ disregarding even the children, who cry and beg for the protection of their parents. The Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister on 9 November 2021 went to the extent of saying that those who refuse to chant the slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ would be dubbed as Pakistanis. The ‘Aurangzeb-Shivaji binary’ is a well choreographed idiom to feed into the divisive agenda in the run-up to the Assembly elections.
The most disturbing fact is that these vigilante groups enjoy selective protection at the hands of the police, thereby, in a sense, criminalising democratic dissent under a regime that targets communities and polarises the polity for electoral dividends. While the state professes law as religion neutral, the data points to the other direction. The enforcement authorities, in sync with Hindutva ideology, look at every religious conversion with a suspicious eye. There is also no denying the public perception that the dominant caste in the government seeks to recruit and put in place in key positions members of their own caste, who in turn do the bidding of those in power for electoral gain.
Along with this, vigilante groups’ alleged criminal activities are seen to have been legitimised. This mode of governance is outside the Constitution and the rule of law. A crackdown on those who protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act took the risk of being cast as criminals in Yogi’s Uttar Pradesh. The crackdown was brutal. Eyewitness accounts and video footage show police entering homes in Muslim neighbourhoods and destroying properties. The death count was 22. Police claimed that they had not fired at the protestors, yet many succumbed to bullet wounds.
Intolerance to dissent became even starker during the Covid-19 pandemic. Cases were filed against journalists who exposed public health failures and criticised the government for the absence of oxygen supply and life saving measures. In fact, cases were allegedly filed against residents for complaining about the state’s abysmal healthcare system. The focus of Yogi’s free from mafia claim falls far short of the truth. The Hindutva ideology, from cow slaughter to love jihad, is an attempt to act to the disadvantage of a community with the help of a close group of people of a particular ideological mould, carrying this agenda to its logical end; even in disrupting Muslim-run meat businesses. The National Security Act (NSA) is being used as a potent tool for ideological onslaught by booking people suspected of cow slaughter or trafficking. In fact, between January 2018 and 2020, the Allahabad High Court quashed NSA orders in more than 70% cow slaughter related cases. All of them were Muslims.
As we move forward, forthcoming speeches will be drenched with communal overtones and vitriol. The police in BJP-ruled states will look on and the election commission will remain selectively silent.
It is now clear that these self-proclaimed vigilantes are groups that are closely interconnected and who seek to help each other and involve themselves in targeting certain communities to their advantage. I wonder who the real ‘mafia and goons’ are? Maybe Amit Shah can ponder and answer that question.
Senior lawyer, Congress leader and member of Rajya Sabha