Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Another blatant assault on the state

The violence in Bulandshahr is an abdication of the state's responsibility to protect the protectors

Jungle raj is a phrase that is often dished out in relation to India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, for its private armies, corruption, and broken law and order situation. Yet, even by its wretched standards, this week’s killing of inspector Subodh Kumar Singh in Bulandshahr marks a new low.

The world over, violence by the hard right is on the rise. But the police are rarely targeted with the kind of impunity that is seen in parts of India. American police officers are shot and killed in the line of duty (43 this year alone) in many situations, but deliberate murder while trying to control a violent crowd isn’t among them. That was the case on 3 December, when alleged cow protection vigilantes killed Singh in a village in Bulandshahr as he tried to rein in a mob incensed by reports that a cattle carcass had been discovered in a nearby jungle.

It’s a struggle to find a more appropriate metaphor for lawlessness than “jungle", a dark place where anything goes. Yet, Uttar Pradesh is far from being the only Indian state with such displays of aggression against the state. Indeed, the events in Bulandshahr, with their obvious communal ring (the killing took place on the last day of a large Tablighi Ijtema gathering of Muslims, some 40km away), fall into a pattern of deliberate confrontation by right-wing and hard-right activists against organs of the state.

The chain of events began 26 years ago to the day (6 December) when Hindutva activists—egged on by leading national-level politicians of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—tore down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, claiming they were setting right a historical wrong. Now, the return of a central government led by the BJP has once again unleashed pro-Hindu and upper-caste forces that had lain relatively dormant for a decade. Ignoring periodic government censure, hard-right activists, beginning with the lynching of Muslims suspected to be eating or storing beef, have been able to marshal their forces and lay into their targets with shocking ease.

The run-up to 6 December 1992 was replete with instances of similar rejection of constitutional authority. Back in 1992, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh submitted a four-point affidavit to the Supreme Court, promising security of the mosque and saying he will only allow a symbolic kar sewa (rituals for building a temple) at the disputed site that Hindus claim to be the birthplace of Ram. “It may be mentioned that the present government of Uttar Pradesh has an enviable record of maintaining law and order in the state, particularly in maintaining communal harmony," the affidavit boasted, seeking to convince the Supreme Court that there was no need for the central government to send security forces in order to enforce the Allahabad high court-ordered status quo around the Babri mosque. Parliament was informed on 3 December 1992 that, indeed, the state government had submitted that “kar sewa would be a symbolic occasion for carrying on certain religious activities and will not be allowed to be exploited for any constructional activities, symbolic or otherwise". Accordingly, the Supreme Court in its order of 28 November had taken note of the “emphatic assurance and undertaking" given by the Kalyan Singh government.

All that counted for nothing when thousands of kar sewaks set upon the mosque with pickaxes and hammers and reduced it to rubble, an act that struck at the heart of constitutionalism. The demolition, described as presaging “a Fascist take-over" by the historian Sarvepalli Gopal in the book Anatomy Of A Confrontation that he edited, set off a sequence of destabilizing events, including further religious violence in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere and the fall of the central government when the BJP withdrew its support following the arrest of its president L.K. Advani.

Now, the memory of that dark chapter in modern Indian history has been revived not only by renewed calls for building a Ram temple but, with only months left to the 2019 general elections, the blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s orders allowing girls and women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. It’s been more than two months since the Supreme Court by a 4-1 majority overturned the temple authority’s practice of banning girls and women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the premises, yet not a single girl or woman of that age group has been able to offer prayers at the shrine on account of raging protests, masterminded by right-wing groups.

The events of 3 December 2018 have eerie echoes of 6 December 1992. Back then, the state was a helpless bystander as activists tore down the Babri Masjid. Twenty-six years on, it seems to be slipping into similar torpor, even condoning lawbreakers. To allow the authority of the state to be eroded with such naked violence as the one that claimed the life of inspector Singh constitutes an abdication of the state’s responsibility to protect the protectors. How well we carry out that responsibility marks the difference between Ram rajya and the jungle raj.

Is the killing of Subodh Kumar Singh an indication of collapse of law and order in Uttar Pradesh? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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