The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq of Bisara village, Uttar Pradesh, for the meat in his refrigerator, proved to be the decisive marker in the sharply rising graph of Muslim-targeted hate crimes that followed the BJP’s victory of 2014. The thrashing to death of Tabrez Ansari, in Saraikela village, Jharkhand, barely 24 days after the BJP government was sworn in for a second term, signposts changing patterns in the ecology of hate crimes in the country.
How do we assess Vigilantism 2.0 against the backdrop of Modi Sarkar 2.0? The first aspect in the Ansari killing was that, in contrast to that of Akhlaq, it did not involve beef. The act was pared down to its fundamentals — the Muslim identity of the subject, with the charge of theft being applied as a masking agent. In fact, it reflected a certain impatience with the elaborate charade of cow protection being used to justify attacks on Muslims. How often can a potential vigilante produce hard evidence of meat possession in order to launch such assaults? Isn’t it so much easier to target someone for resisting the evocation of Lord Ram; someone on whose tongue the words “Jai Shri Ram” arrive unwillingly?
This brings us to another characteristic of the Ansari killing. It was part of a triumphalist upsurge that followed the May 23 verdict that manifested itself within hours of the BJP victory, and continues to the present day. The celebrants, impervious to the anguished cries of their victims, sought to make the Modi victory their own, playing out their own fantasies of power by forcing random people to pronounce one of the central slogans of political Hindutva. How random these victims were can be judged by the geographical spread of the most recent attacks. They included a group of Muslim men in Barpeta, Assam, a skull-cap wearing teenager in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, a cab driver in Thane, Maharashtra, a cleric aboard a train from Gaya, Bihar, young men in Delhi’s Rohini area and Haryana’s Gurgaon. Only two commonalities were evident: The religion of the assaulter and assaulted, and the central slogan of “Jai Shri Ram”.
“Jai Shri Ram” has more of a marked presence in contemporary India thanks to social media, than it had in its heyday during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. But melodious renderings of it, soothing to the ear and heart, are not the ones that garner the most “likes”. It is the visceral, gut-spilling, high decibel variations that are “favourited” over and over again. Take the ‘Bajrang Dal song’ from Swapnil Murlidhar Barphe: It’s a mass of floating super monsters and super heroes hurling themselves at each other, with special effects borrowed from the Bahubali and Chhatrapati Shivaji playbooks. What is conspicuous in this version, which claims over 150 million views, is the way English words are used in a posh accent — “Everybody put your hands up” is spliced into the violence, lending it a certain coolness, an urbane acceptability. The subliminal message is clear: Listeners are enjoined to foist their will on a hated minority, use the mace of angry Hanuman as a hammer of death, with the cry “Jai Shri Ram” denatured from being a general salutation to a communal war cry.
Much blood has flowed down the subterranean culverts linking the Akhlaq and Ansari killings. Public realisation has grown of how the criminal-justice and political costs of such vigilantism are minimal, if at all, and can, in fact, deliver major dividends. There is now a more pronounced public articulation of the previously unthinkable; more demonstrations of the previously undoable. The veneration accorded to a Godse by Pragya Thakur, which helped cement her handsome Lok Sabha victory this time, is striking. While in 2014, Jayant Sinha won his Hazaribagh seat in Jharkhand by a margin of 1,59,128 votes, in 2019 — after his much discussed garlanding of a vigilante killer — he won by a margin of 4,79,548 votes. If the first instance indicated a glorification of the politics of assassination, the second provided tacit stimulus to the politics of vigilantism. If the Akhlaq felling had evoked widespread horror and shock, the eight-hour torture of Ansari four years later brings on public outrage in a few quarters, and sadness in others. But, all of it is now tinged with a certain acceptance that stuff happens, and targeting an entire state for such developments is not fair.
The Reliance Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies and Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, Thomas Blom Hansen, writes that the “mightiest socio-political force in India” today is not the state or the law but “deeply embedded vernacular ideas of popular sovereignty”. He goes on to add that one of the crucial enabling conditions for public violence is the lack of the “application of the force of law in the face of such exertions of ‘the law of force’.”
The profoundly disturbing question that he raises should give us pause as we recall young Ansari’s terrorised face while being forced to repeat the words, “Jai Shri Ram” yet another time: Is India’s democratic revolution devouring democracy?
Philipose has recently authored Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India Communicates