The least problematic aspect of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s statement implying that Muslim residents offering namaz in public are comparable to police stations in the state becoming associated with the majority religion is that it is a simple logical fallacy. The “false equivalence” between ordinary citizens exercising their freedom of religion and the co-opting of police stations for janmashthami celebrations is, however, symptomatic of a deeper malaise. At its core, it goes towards confirming the fears — often unstated — that the ideological underpinnings of Adityanath and the BJP will erode the values of India’s constitutional morality.
For most Indians, the thana is the site of their most basic — and often most important — interactions with the state. It is the primary port of call for those seeking justice, whether victims of petty crime or community-based violence. While a section of the population, among the middle classes and elites, has been able to minimise its interaction with the state, having seceded into private networks of privilege, security and gated enclaves, the police station and the tehsil office remain essential to the lives of the poor majority. And in a state like UP, where the government has functioned through political patronage, they become all the more important. It is in the impartiality and efficiency of this primary unit that governments, and even the state itself, are judged on that most ephemeral and essential of electoral issues — law and order.
Given their importance, the UP CM’s attempt to draw a parallel between ordinary public spaces and police stations can have one of two explanations. First, that he feels his government is genuinely incapable of enforcing the propriety that officers and offices of the law should hold: “Agar mai sadak par Eid ke din namaz padhne pe rok nahi laga sakta to mujhe koi adhikar nahi ki mai thanon mein janmashtami ke parv ko rokun,” Adityanath said at an event in Lucknow. It is highly improbable that any chief minister, let alone a “strong” one like Yogi, will make statements conveying helplessness.
The second, and more obvious, explanation is this: The CM’s statement is a thinly veiled message to minorities. The police station is no longer, even symbolically, a secular entity. The display of religious identity and belief in an ordinary public space by Muslims will be met by a majoritarian government, uniform and all. That the Constitution of India accords minorities religious and educational rights precisely because they may be under threat, real or perceived, from the majority seems to have no bearing on the UP CM’s philosophy of governance. By overtly backing the communalisation of the thana, Adityanath has hinted that he sees the last UP assembly election result as more than just a change in government.
For many, the declaration of Adityanath as CM was the culmination of a campaign designed to exclude minorities: The BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in UP and the PM himself drew binaries between shamshans and kabristans. Despite, or even because of the campaign, the party won a magnificent majority and elevated arguably its most prominently controversial Hindutva leader (of “love jihad” fame) to the helm of India’s most populous state. In ways both subtle and blunt, it was clear that the Hindus of UP were being asked to vote on lines that were saffron-hued.
That they did so overwhelmingly certainly has a bearing on the statements we hear from the CM. The unit of governance no longer appears to be the citizen and its purpose no longer to protect her/his fundamental rights. The individual is increasingly just an extension of their religion, and the character and attitude of the institutions of the state towards them may well be determined by that ascriptive identity.
A democratic polity, however, is not just about electoral victories and defeats. It is governed by a set of larger principles, more enduring than a five-year cycle. For India, those principles are enshrined in its Constitution. As the temporary occupant of a constitutional office, the UP CM owes at least symbolic fidelity to its values. In doing so, he may find more than just the ability to make logically consistent arguments. He could, in fact, ensure that “sabka saath sabka vikas” becomes more than just a tragic punchline.