Democracy, while a robust political form, is one whose actual mechanisms might not necessarily be about principle-driven behaviour or perfection of governance. High levels of corruption, political violence, the entry of criminals into Parliament, are examples pertinent to many democracies today. In India, mafia leaders and those accused of gruesome crimes have chosen to contest elections with the aim of converting their catalogue of criminality into something more respectable.
Despite such muddied waters, elections in India had until now remained essentially separated from at least some varieties of public violence and those accused of it. Terrorism and terror-related offences are examples of violence that were still considered to weaken, not aid, access to power. Designating certain forms of violence as terrorism, bombings on civilians included, is done not simply on the basis of the idea that they are attacks on the government or law enforcement, but also on the basis of a belief that the state and its institutions cannot provide implicit or explicit cooperation to such violence undertaken by sub-national groups against non-combatant targets. If so, how do we explain the shift in democratic politics when those arrested on charges of terrorism and out on bail are now beginning to contest elections? What sort of a moral force are they able to wield?
One striking example in the 2019 general election is the candidature of Pragya Singh Thakur. According to the FIR prepared by Hemant Karkare in the 2008 Malegaon case, she took part in the Bhopal meeting of Abhinav Bharat where Himani Savarkar (the daughter of Gopal Godse) became president of the organisation and in the course of which the accused “conspired together to take revenge against Muslims in Malegaon by exploding a bomb at a thickly populated area. Accused (Lt. Colonel) Purohit took the responsibility of providing explosives. Accused Pragya Singh Thakur took the responsibility of providing men for the explosion. In this meeting all the participants agreed and consented to commit the explosion at Malegaon.” On June 11, 2008, Thakur allegedly introduced Ramchandra Kalasangra and Sandip Dange to Amritananda Dev Tirtha, another accused, as two reliable persons who would plant the bomb in Malegaon. In early July, she allegedly asked Tirtha to direct Purohit “to give explosives” to Kalsangra and Dange in Pune.
After the blast, another member of Abhinav Bharat, Major Ramesh Upadhyay, a former defence services officer, was arrested. He admitted that he had taken part in three meetings with Thakur and other accomplices on the Bhonsala Military School, Nashik premises to plan the Malegaon blast. Ajay Misar, the public prosecutor, declared: “Upadhyay, who was posted in the artillery department while working with the Indian military, is suspected to have guided the arrested accused on how to assemble a bomb and procure RDX.” Today, Upadhyay is the Hindu Mahasabha candidate from Ballia and another accused mentioned in Karkare’s FIR, Sudhakar Chaturvedi, is contesting as an independent in Mirzapur.
Thakur, on bail for medical reasons, is currently under trial for several terrorism-related charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Her entry in electoral politics under the aegis of the BJP underlines striking shifts in India’s democracy. First, it points to the widening of the already rich assortment of candidates who are accused of criminal offences. What this means is not that even the murkiest forms of criminality simply have become more acceptable, but that its expansion occurs more or less in tandem with the eroding legitimacy of public office, severance of trust reposed in elected representatives, and the elevation of ethnic and religious persecution.
Second, it is also a comment on the Hindu nationalists. The use and normalisation of various forms of violence —
riots, demolition of the Babri Masjid, vigilantism etc — has cemented not just their electoral and ideological position, but also turned the brutal hostility against minorities into a routine affair. However, the extent to which the Hindu nationalist old guard would have gone to support those accused of terrorism is less straightforward. Even as its own campaign is designed around “national security”, the current BJP leadership’s encouragement to Thakur, her comment on cursing ATS chief Hemant Karkare to death, all convey less about their ideas of democracy than about the way in which they have contributed to the decline of basic social etiquette and political norms of a diverse society.
Third, one of their tactics in the pursuit of such politics is to claim victimhood. Thakur’s campaign has claimed that her fight is against the “conspiracy to insult Hindu religion,” against those who “give a bad name to the entire country,” who “insult(ed) a woman, a sadhvi, and a patriot,” who put her in jail “illegally and tortured (her) physically, mentally and in every way”. While the Human Rights Commission that probed into her allegations of torture in August 2014 had to close the case because it could not find any evidence, the discourse of victimisation reflects an attempt at legitimising majoritarian backlash and suggests a perversion of the language of the law and liberalism. It is perverse not simply in the sense that fact checking might be compromised or in the sense of embarrassing those in whose name they seem to be fighting. But most importantly, it is perverse in the sense that convenience and malleability of victimhood have regularly begun to shape political and ideological agendas.
Finally, the electoral arithmetic that has informed Thakur’s entry in politics accompanies deep institutional malaise. A decade since the bombings, people know little about the perpetrators. What does the state make of the “evidences”, the “FIRs”, and the lists of “prime accused”? The NIA, judiciary, police, and government represent aspects of state power: How do they justify the power they wield in the absence of any commitment to security and justice for its citizens?
The implications seem to be that the more deadly the crimes people are associated with, higher are their chances for a career in politics; the more the business of elections relies on crime, the more is the depreciation of any meaningful claims of being a democracy; the more the electorate assimilates this as banal and logical, the more they deprive themselves of the means of justice.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 11, 2019, under the title ‘The Sadhvi portent’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, and professor at King’s India Institute, London. Maheshwari is assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University