Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

India, a nation of vigilantes -
the lynch mob republic

As corrosive vigilante nationalism seeps into Indian universities, the armed forces, and law and order institutions, it is just a small step to fascism with its ever lurking Brownshirt street justice.

New Delhi, June 2017

India vigilante groups include gau rakshaks who claim to protect cows

Cow protection patrol stops bus in northern India - 'gau rakshaks' are part of the new breed of freelance vigilantes operating across the country

THESE three years have seen the State fuse with the street to create a vigilante nation. If India's first national movement was a mobilization against foreign rulers, the new nationalism, the principal style of which is vigilantism, is directed at the enemy within. '

Vigilantism' used in this way needs an explanation. Vigilantes are ordinarily defined as people who take the law into their own hands. For example, Amitabh Bachchan (with the aid of Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra) dominated the box office in the Seventies and Eighties as the vigilante hero who tried to set an irredeemably corrupt world to rights. Films like Zanjeer, Deewaar and Coolie defined a new genre in Hindi cinema.

Plain vanilla vigilantism of the Bachchan sort is different from vigilante nationalism in two ways. First, it's a form of individual heroism whereas contemporary Indian vigilantism is organized and collective. Secondly, the filmi vigilante is at odds with the 'system' and the corrupt State that underwrites it. The modern Indian vigilante, on the other hand, is in a patron-client partnership with the State; this is not an adversarial relationship.

Mukul Kesavan

Mukul Kesavan

Modern vigilantes bend the system to their will and take the law into their hands with the tacit or explicit blessing of the State and in the name of the virtuous Nation

Modern vigilantes bend the system to their will and take the law into their hands with the tacit or explicit blessing of the State and in the name of the virtuous Nation. This is a Nation that is insufficiently realized because its coming into being has been thwarted by a false nationalism and a corruptly administered republic. The new vigilante is insurgent in this thwarted Nation's cause.

Even under Narendra Modi's new management the routines of the State and its institutions - courts, bureaucracies, uniformed services - aren't sufficiently responsive to the cause of the Nation. They need to be aided by organized citizen auxiliaries and revitalized by the spirit of vigilante nationalism which is simply an expression of the popular will, unmuffled by bureaucratic flannel.

Since we're talking about State-vigilante coordination, it's important in this context to distinguish vigilante nationalism from vigilante counter-insurgency. Vigilantes of the sort who belong to militias like Salwa Judum or Sulfa or the Ikhwan force are renegade mercenaries. They are creatures of the State who serve a counter-insurgency purpose. Vigilante nationalists, on the other hand, are the soulmates of an ideological party, bound to it by a common purpose: the forging of a Hindu nation.

Yogi Adityanath's provincial government is the first fruit of this fusion of the State and the street. Adityanath is best understood as Uttar Pradesh's Chief Vigilante. His democratic mandate legitimizes his private vigilante militia, the Hindu Yuva Vahini. The anti-Romeo squads who police Hindu-Muslim romance, the cow goondas who patrol UP's highways attacking cattle transporters and butchers are examples of the state government of India's most populous province informally sub-contracting out law enforcement functions to avowedly Hindu militias.

The political patrons of these vigilante nationalists sometimes prioritize the galvanizing of the nationalist street over the maintenance of law and order. There have been a series of beatings and lynchings in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party which have resulted in Muslims at the receiving end being booked and their assailants defended by BJP office bearers, ministers and chief ministers.

Undeterred by the violence, BJP state governments have made the cattle trade conditional on so much paperwork that they have effectively laid the groundwork for protection rackets run by vigilante militias. These governments have raised the jail tariffs for cow slaughter and effectively made cow vigilantes licensed predators. Yogi Adityanath, whose elevation to UP's chief ministership was justified by the BJP by citing his talent for law and order, seems to have temporarily ceded control of his state's highways from Noida to Saharanpur to thugs with murder and arson and rape on their minds.

One reason for this is that the BJP understands that political parties of its sort don't live and grow by policy and law-and-order alone. As the BJP expands its footprint and its membership under Amit Shah's stewardship, it needs camaraderie and purpose. The Hindutvavadi Right's militias are its violent satyagrahis. They are nationalist foot soldiers of a different time, pledged to the service of a different sort of nation. Unlike anti-colonial nationalists, they own the State already, their project is to remake the nation's citizenry in their own image, and to subordinate those who are too alien to be reformed. For this the symbolism of a Dandi march is unnecessary; a danda march is a better way of getting people to defer to the Nation and its symbols.

One institution that has been successfully remade in the image of vigilante nationalism is news television. The farcical scrap between Times Now and Republic TV over the phrase 'the nation wants to know' just about sums up this transformation

Vigilante nationalism isn't confined to militias; it's a state of mind that shapes every sort of institution. So we've seen Indian university students being sorted into traitors and patriots. Here the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the youth wing of the BJP, has helpfully played the role of a client militia, sometimes local informant and sometimes campus muscle.

One institution that has been successfully remade in the image of vigilante nationalism is news television. The farcical scrap between Times Now and Republic TV over the phrase 'the nation wants to know' just about sums up this transformation. In a style pioneered by Arnab Goswami and imitated by many others, the television anchor transmutes tabloid headlines into TRP gold by setting scandals, investigations and controversies in the frame of the national interest. Dead cows, murdered humans, raped women, mutilated soldiers are all grist to this nationalist mill and like vigilante militias these television lynch mobs take no prisoners.

It is ironical that the rhetoric of vigilantism has managed to draw the most rigidly rule-bound institution in this country, the Indian army, into the orbit of a lawless nationalism. The use of a Kashmiri civilian as a human shield was widely discussed and massively endorsed in the frontline trenches that are our television studios. In a move that the armed forces and India might come to regret, Major Gogoi appeared before television cameras to justify actions explicitly prohibited by international conventions.

Meanwhile, the chief of army staff pre-empted the army's own inquiry into Major Gogoi's actions by awarding him a certificate of commendation. Unsurprisingly, he was exonerated. Publicly parading a civilian as a human shield through one village after another was presented as a daring and ingenious response to a law and order emergency and commended. The climate of vigilante nationalism doesn't merely allow thuggish militias to encroach upon the prerogatives of uniformed men; it allows uniformed men to believe that it's all right to adopt the methods of vigilante militias.

Institutions take decades to build and moments to undo. Vigilante nationalism has corroded our universities, our armed forces, our media organizations, and our mechanisms of law and order. It will destroy them if we keep bending rules and abandoning due process to prove our patriotic credentials or worse, to challenge those of others.

Fascism is best understood as violent nationalism with the violence turned inwards. Its sex appeal, its crowd-pulling, cadre-recruiting genius is its knack for turning every political conversation into a traitor-hunting, treachery-baring expedition. The sense of nationalist purpose, the excitement of being allowed to name the 'enemy' without the tyranny of political correctness, the frisson of the chase (which, luckily for the genteel middle class recruit, doesn't have to culminate in the fury of a lynch mob), this is what makes it popular. If India ever takes a fascist turn, vigilante nationalists will be our Brownshirts.


Reprinted with the author's permission from The Telegraph.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is Homeless on Google Earth.

Post a comment

You have 800 characters left for this comment.
The Editors welcome thought-provoking comments, but racist, abusive, intolerant, hate language will not be carried on our pages. All feedback that adds to lively, constructive dialogue will be posted after vetting.
CAPTCHA Image Click to refresh this random text
Subba Rao (3 June, 2017) – India
Mr.Kesavan highlights the perils of letting individuals or groups of individuals taking law into their hands. That is a point well taken and society needs to be wary of such vigilantism. No one has the right to take another's life in the name of religion, caste, region, language or whatever. But Mr.Kesavan seems to be going overboard in suggesting that India has recently turned anarchist with incidents of lynching and chest-thumping nationalism. In the 4+ decades that I have lived in my country India, I have seen such unfortunate,regressive incidents occur time and again. This does not mean one condones such behaviour but to attribute these recent incidents to a particular political party is pure partisan commentary, in my humble view. – This comment has been edited
Aparna Dass (1 June, 2017) – India
The Republic TV charade and Goswami's outbursts deal a blow to decent and fair-minded journalists. It is entirely true that this is media vigilantism at its muck-raking worst. And it is not representative of Indian newspapers and other media organizations. – This comment has been edited
Mitch (1 June, 2017) – Singapore
A thoughtful and well written article about a worrying trend. Any loss of institutional integrity is another brick pulled out of the democratic wall. More people need to speak out about defending core values. Vigilantes don't work in any context and must be dealt with firmly.
Parthasarthy (1 June, 2017) – India
The Indian army's action in Kashmir was appalling and puts it in the same league as terrorists. We see this time and again in Iraq and Syria. And it further blackens the army's image at a time when it needs to reach out. Whatever happened to winning hearts and minds?
Debastuti Baruah (31 May, 2017) – India
In the case of Major Gogoi, i would say it's innovation or presence of mind, not vigilantism. His other options were to ask his boys to wait, die, and go home wrapped in the tricolor, or to shoot down the stone pelters. I suppose saving human lives comes above saving human rights. – This comment has been edited
June Hunt (31 May, 2017) – UK
A frightening thought. But I think India has strong institutions and people need to speak out against any erosion of these democratic bulwarks.

Long term impact of Gaza attack on Israel

Consequences of Palestinian conflict and finger-pointing in the blame game ... See world opinion

Curse of curation

PR-speak is turning our conversations into outright gibberish... more…