As we drove back on Sunday night in the part of New Delhi described as ‘Lutyenstown’ – where India’s elite politicians, bureaucrats, judges, its nomenklatura, live in bungalows with high walls and vast, immaculate lawns – we saw a few police cars, with their beacon lights flashing, driving by silently at an unhurried pace. They did not seem to be in any rush to reach the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, where people in masks, carrying iron rods and wooden staffs were roaming around hostels, beating students and lecturers. The university’s main gates were closed, the lights around the campus had been turned off, and the police outside were doing nothing to stop the violence. Instead, as the website Scroll.in reported, they were first seen letting people in through one gate, and later not questioning or detaining any of the men with hockey sticks, rods, and cricket bats, when they began streaming out of the campus.
Delhi’s police has been selectively zealous in taking their law and order responsibly seriously in recent times. A few days earlier, a friend of mine – who is a lecturer at a university in another Indian city but visiting Delhi – was returning to her accommodation in the capital after participating in a peaceful protest, when she was stopped. The police thought she was a student and questioned her, asking her where she lived and what she did. She was unarmed, but the police did not take chances; their diligence was curiously absent when armed men emerged out of JNU.
The anger against the government is not a quibble over arcane sub-clauses defining citizenship one way or another, or how the message is conveyed, but because many Indians don’t want the nation being hijacked by a mob.
Were these police cars headed for JNU, I wondered. Or were they meant to reassure people who live in this area that everything is safe and the police are in control?
India is reaching a stage where the idea of the police being in control begs another question – control of what? I am reminded of the haunting words Muslim victims heard from a police officer in Gujarat, during the organised mass violence targeting them in 2002, when the state burned under Narendra Modi’s chief ministership. “We have no orders to protect you,” the police officer told the victims who sought help.
When JNU students confronted the police on Monday after the violence had abated, a senior officer told them, “Are hamne to nahi mara, na?” (It is not we who beat you), as if it was a matter of comfort or consolation. More than two dozen students and faculty were severely hurt and had to be rushed to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, where several, including Aishe Ghosh, president of the university’s students’ union, required stitches for head injuries. A doctor from AIIMS tweeted that the police would not allow their ambulance to enter the campus to tend to the wounded. Rohan Venkat, a senior journalist with Scroll.in was roughed up and hit on the head. Other journalists reported being jostled and heckled. The political activist Yogendra Yadav who heads Swarajya, a small political party, was assaulted while the police looked on. Between 30 and 50 people went through the campus with impunity for close to three hours, their faces masked, their heads sometimes hooded. They shattered glass, overturned furniture, and beat up anyone they considered enemies. Among the slogans they shouted – ‘desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maron salo ko’, which can be roughly translated as ‘these traitors of the nation, shoot the bastards’.
The BJP’s enablers included those who had always supported the party, those who were drawn to it because the party’s new leadership promised a more muscular Hinduism, and the new enablers who believed (despite there being little evidence) that the BJP would be pro-market, pro-business.
The attack forced some prominent Indians, usually known for making pro-government remarks, to speak out, albeit gently. Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat and TV news anchor Rahul Kanwal tweeted their anguish. Bhagat said the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which has led to spontaneous demonstrations in more than 40 cities across India, should be withdrawn; Kanwal advised the ‘headline managers’, presumably the propagandists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not to spin their way out of the trouble, but withdraw the bill. Their belated recognition of the existential crisis India is facing is noted, but their diagnosis is unsurprisingly flawed. The CAA is not a problem of ‘communication’ as this seems to suggest; vast numbers of Indians oppose the CAA because they view it as divisive, because it is seen as fundamentally against Muslims. “You divide us, we will multiply”, a banner proclaimed, during a spontaneous protest in support of JNU in Mumbai on Sunday night. The anger against the government is not a quibble over arcane sub-clauses defining citizenship one way or another, or how the message is conveyed, but because many Indians don’t want the nation being hijacked by a mob.
Too many Indians had bought into the seductive message the BJP offered in 2014, as voters had grown tired of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition and the allegations of corruption. The BJP’s enablers included those who had always supported the party, those who were drawn to it because the party’s new leadership promised a more muscular Hinduism, and the new enablers who believed (despite there being little evidence) that the BJP would be pro-market, pro-business, helping build a more competitive economy committed to free enterprise. Many were united in assuming that BJP would be ‘genuinely’ secular (which really meant not offering any concessions to religious minorities).
And so India has reached this abyss: random acts of violence are getting normalised and are being carried out with impunity against minorities and others critical of the state, often by individuals who are not traced, or are described as activists not connected with the ruling party.
The BJP was going to be as its label advertised, a Hindu nationalist party, and evidence of the impunity with which its supporters and sympathisers acted as anti-minority violence rose, started piling up fairly soon – a Muslim software professional murdered in Pune; Dalit youth stripped to their waists and whipped by a mob in Una; Mohammed Akhlaq murdered because someone thought that the meat in his refrigerator was beef; union minister Jayant Sinha visiting eight men convicted of lynching and garlanding them; a 200-strong mob murdering Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer, in Alwar; in Rajasthan, Shambhu Lal hacking and burning Mohammed Afrazul, a labourer; the cold-blooded murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru.
The government would respond to these incidents, but meekly, or late – Modi criticised such violence only mildly, and often after several days (at the time of writing he hasn’t said anything on the violence at JNU, which some Hindu nationalists are claiming to have spear-headed); police inquiries would be lethargic; surreal investigations would get ordered to determine if the meat at Akhlaq’s home was cow’s or of some other animal. Then there was the sustained vilification of JNU itself, as a so-called ‘hotbed’ of anti-national politics, with television anchors turning inquisitors haranguing JNU’s student leaders about their patriotism and claiming that a doctored video was ‘proof’ that anti-India slogans were raised on campus. (A robust democracy would not wilt if a few students shout slogans against the nation, but let that pass).
These mobs, we were told, were the fringe. But the fringe is now the centre, and the mob sets the rules. The mob is the crowd, and the crowd gives the lumpen individual a sense of intoxicating power.
And so India has reached this abyss: random acts of violence are getting normalised and are being carried out with impunity against minorities and others critical of the state, often by individuals who are not traced, or are described as activists not connected with the ruling party. The government responds feebly, if at all, or offers tacit encouragement, in some cases even valourising the perpetrators. When Ravi Sisodia, one of the men accused of killing Akhlaq died of natural causes, the villagers draped his body in the Indian flag and a minister visited the family. And prominent television anchors become cheerleaders of the jingoistic mobs. The mobs then know they can act with impunity, because the state won’t stop them and a large and influential section of the media will egg them on.
These mobs, we were told, were the fringe. But the fringe is now the centre, and the mob sets the rules. The mob is the crowd, and the crowd gives the lumpen individual a sense of intoxicating power. In Crowds and Power, the Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti wrote how guilt is assigned on the other without any basis, as the mob did to students at the JNU: “It is always the enemy who started it, even if he was not the first to speak out, he was certainly planning it; and if he was not actually planning it, he was thinking of it; and if he was not thinking of it, he would have thought of it.” (BJP supporters are claiming that the violence was deliberately stage-managed by leftist students to tarnish the image of its student wing. If so, they’ve been remarkably coy in not protesting to the police for their inaction, nor asking for the home minister Amit Shah to resign, considering that the Delhi police force reports to him). In reality, as several media accounts show, it was the student wing of the BJP, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which was planning the violence on Sunday.
Removing the mob from its influential perch is the generational challenge for India. And the impromptu protests emerging across India – these million mutinies – show the springing of hopes during this winter of discontent.