What kind of a regime would see, after the death of the 19-year-old Dalit woman assaulted by upper caste men in Hathras, not the grief of the family that lost its daughter and was denied even the right to conduct her last rites, and hear not the ringing demands for lawful justice — but only a conspiracy to defame its own reputation? As Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath spoke of “anarchists” and “conspiracies” against his government by those “who want to incite caste and communal riots”, his police force, in the dock themselves for their brutish action, obediently took their cue and registered a spate of FIRs — 21 and counting. Against the BJP’s political opponents and others who have protested in the wake of Hathras or have tried to lend a shoulder to the family. The FIRs filed across the state target those belonging to the Congress, SP, RLD and the Bhim Army among others, and invoke sections of the Information Technology Act, sedition, criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity between groups apart from violation of Section 144 that has so insidiously become a ubiquitous feature of the UP landscape. This criminalisation of protest makes the UP government look even more ill at ease in a constitutional democracy, even more out of step with the temper of a young and questioning nation, than it did after the hurried cremation, the barricading of the family and the attempt to deny or downplay the crime in Hathras.
The crime in Hathras makes for a particularly poignant setting, but there have been grim warnings of the institutionalisation of the Yogi Adityanath government’s intolerance of any and every expression of dissent or protest, and in acting on it, its scant regard for democratic nicety or rule. Most recently, before the pandemic struck, the way in which it targeted those who protested against a discriminatory citizenship law showed that it was following its own copybook and pursuing its own fantasy of an Opposition-mukt state. Posters were put up in public places, naming and shaming the protesters, violating the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence until lawfully proved guilty. Now, an argument being made by the UP government, including in its affidavit to the court, is that the issue is being given “caste-communal colour”. The bigger question, surely, for any sensitive government is this: Why do crime and impunity have a caste and communal colour, why does the police response have a caste and communal colour in UP?
Today, the BJP-led government in UP, as at the Centre, has a large majority, and the Opposition party and view is struggling for a voice and toe-hold in the state and at the Centre. In times like these, if the political executive weaponises its numbers, as the Yogi government is doing, if it does not listen to, leaves no spaces for, those who question and protest, it does disservice to the trust reposed in it. In a system that abides by as large-hearted a document as the Indian Constitution, a government takes a narrow and vengeful view of its mandate at its own peril.