A madness seems to be sweeping across large parts of the country. In incident after incident, the transportation of cattle, the suspicion of possession or consumption of beef, the transportation or possession of cattle carcasses, have been sufficient provocation for a lynch mob to appear from nowhere and inflict gruesome violence. Those accused of these provocations, usually Muslims and Dalits, have been subjected to the most horrific brutality. The death toll in these incidents is already in the double digits and rising.
Quite understandably, this violence has raised serious questions about the prevailing social climate in the country, specially with regard to Hindu-Muslim relations. Both at home and abroad, India’s image as a tolerant, pluralist society has taken a beating. Civil society is up in arms. Social media and traditional media are both awash with heartfelt expressions of outrage. Protest marches are being organised, and while there is a widespread sense of shock and unease cutting across the political spectrum, and those on the left of the ideological divide are tirelessly telling us, I told you so.
As a vegetarian Hindu, and as a police officer, I am deeply horrified and ashamed at these acts of violence unleashed across the country, ostensibly in the name of protecting Hinduism and its sacred symbols. But we have been here before. Remember Nirbhaya? The horror and outrage, the candle marches, the outpouring of grief at India’s daughter? Our Parliament was goaded into hurriedly passing a draconian rape law. With what result? Four years on, women continue to be raped and brutalised with impunity. To be fair, the culture of shame around rape has changed and more victims are coming forward to speak up. However, we made the mistake then of thinking that outrage and breast-beating can be a substitute for thoughtful analysis and policy making. And we are making the same mistake now.
One of our thoughtful political commentators loftily proclaims, “let the silent be damned”. As if the vocal will deliver us to some kind of collective salvation. Another erudite colleague from the IPS compares us to cows and damns his 4,000-strong fraternity for failing to establish the rule of law in a nation of 1.3 billion people. A group of 65-odd distinguished veterans of our civil services and armed forces have written a passionate letter decrying the current spirit of hyper nationalism. One cannot fault the motives of all those expressing their anguish at the current state of affairs, but one must challenge their diagnosis. The rule of law cannot be established by outrage alone. At best outrage can be the starting point of meaningful reform. But for reform to make a perceptible difference on the ground requires substantial investment and empowerment of the law enforcement machinery. In a nutshell, our civil society has to put its money where its mouth is.
The random acts of violence along communal lines are nothing new to India. What is new is the perception that every such act is guided by an unseen hand that is somehow controlling the mob and also the machinery of the state. These incidents are undoubtedly failures of our state and civil society, but they are neither planned nor predictable. Or entirely preventable. Or anything new. To assume that they are is absurd. Similarly every lumpen act of communal bigotry cannot be ascribed to the rise of the BJP. To do so would be to refuse to acknowledge the irrational and primal faultlines that continue to drive our aam aadmi. This perception of state complicity in all acts of mob violence, based in reality or otherwise, is worrying and needs to be addressed. However, we would do well to remember that the state is not always complicit, sometimes it is simply ineffective or incompetent. Ideology cannot blind us to crucial differences between the three. It would be akin to conflating the chronic disease of everyday prejudice and bigotry with the more acute disease of hollow and ineffective institutions and assume that both can be cured by expressions of outrage alone.
Our population explosion, combined with our failures in the field of literacy and our economic underperformance have led to the creation of a massive lumpen class that straddles the rural-urban divide. This class is both hapless victim and wilful perpetrator of banal acts of everyday humiliation and violence. It is also acutely perceptive of prevailing political fashion and alters its atavistic urges according to the dominant political grammar of the day. The lumpen who ran amok with Sanjay Gandhi have more in common with the lumpen running amok in the name of Hindutva than we care to admit. No matter which party is in power, the stormtroopers remain the same. To reduce their reach and relevance is a serious challenge before 21st century India.
To my mind, three things are responsible for the caustic presence of violence in all areas of our everyday life. First, a culture of political mobilisation that unscrupulously uses violence as a tool of politics. Mobs of goons run wild not just in the name of the cow, but also in the name of social justice for a particular caste, and other equally worthy causes, and their actions go unpunished. Often cases are registered only to be quietly withdrawn when media scrutiny and public outrage have subsided. A sense of immunity fuels the next round of impunity. Once the legitimacy of this tactic is conceded, it is difficult to deny it to this or that ideology. What is good for the goose becomes good for the gander.
Second, our political culture brazenly expects our criminal justice system to work as a handmaiden of the party in power. It is all very well to blame the police for failing to establish the rule of law. But as long as the political class exercises arbitrary power over the fortunes of the IPS and the careers of their subordinates, I don’t expect much to change. It has been over 10 years since the SC delivered its judgment on police reforms. It is yet to be implemented. A judiciary that is normally quick to take offence over the slightest perceived infraction of its privileges is curiously indifferent to enforcing its diktat on this vital matter. In this climate, to expect that all of a sudden IPS officers will outgrow their institutional DNA and become brave crusaders for truth and justice is a pipe dream.
Last but not least, India remains grossly under-invested in its police and its criminal justice system. In the last 20 years, our police has failed to keep up with the rate of our population growth. The states have simply refused to invest enough in grass roots policing, and the explosive growth of central armed police forces cannot make up for the deficiencies of thana level police, which is the cutting edge deterrent for this lumpen class of ideological chameleons. Not only the police, we need to invest in our courts and jails too. Rising levels of lumpen impunity must be matched by penal effectiveness.
Ideologies of hate and oppression and their violent expression do not thrive in a vacuum. They require the oxygen of dysfunctional institutions. Unless we stem the rot with investment and reform, Nirbhayas and Junaids will continue to outrage us. Again and again.