Days before the verdict in rape case against Dera Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, his supporters started gathering in Panchkula. A lot of violence could have been prevented by not letting them come there. Why did the government allow this? The Dera is hardly a benign spiritual organisation. It holds significant political clout and openly declares support to political parties during elections. It supported the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 assembly elections in Haryana. Was the BJP government reciprocating the favour? The answer is probably yes. To be sure, it is not the first instance of deliberate subversion of law and order machinery. Political gains from placating influential groups indulging in criminal actions often get the better of state’s commitment to uphold the rule of law in India.

Haryana saw large-scale rioting during the Jat reservation agitation in 2016. Agitators inflicted large-scale damage on both private and public property . They even looted firearms from police stations. A committee under Prakash Singh, former DGP of Uttar Pradesh looked into the role of Haryana police and administration during these protests.

The committee’s report explicitly says that shortage of adequate forces was not a problem. The report gives intriguing statistics of police action to substantiate its claims. Not even one person was injured in 11 instances of lathi-charge during the protests. In Rohtak district, which was the epicentre of protests, nobody died despite seven instances of police firing by the state police. Use of force was ineffective and token in nature, the report concludes. It also cites similar instances in other states—violence during funeral of Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh in Patna, Bihar and widespread rioting by a Muslim Mob in Azad Maidan, Mumbai—in 2012, where rioters were allowed a free hand as police action was lacking in effort due to political considerations.

Singh’s observations suggest that the state’s response to organised violence depends on relative political clout of perpetrators and sufferers.

A 2002 Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) paper by Steven Wilkinson, a professor of political science at Yale University, has similar findings. Wilkinson shows that party ideology or higher representation of minorities in cabinet and police did not have any correlation with incidents of Hindu-Muslim communal riots in Indian states between 1975 and 1995.

An increase in number of political parties effectively competing in a state is a more important determinant of timely actions to prevent Hindu-Muslim riots, Wilkinson argues.

In states such as Uttar Pradesh, where political competition was lower till the 1980s, local police illegally delayed action against rioters as state governments did a political cost-benefit analysis of preventing riots. Southern states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which had higher political competition, acted quickly to prevent riots irrespective of the political party in power. Increase in political competition increases the value of minority votes, hence the prompt action, Wilkinson argues. Minorities are likely to vote against a government which does not protect them during riots. In states with lower competition their votes might be dispensable. To be sure, there are multiple views on what triggers communal riots in India, as was pointed out in an Economics Express column.

Politically driven subversion of law and order can also take other forms. In the recently held local body polls in West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has polled more than 70% votes in three out of six municipalities. Opposition parties have accused the ruling party of widespread rigging.

West Bengal’s political history is rife with instances of ruling party disallowing even basic political competition. A 2011 EPW paper by Partha Sarathi Banerjee shows that a large number of panchayat seats were won uncontested in certain years in West Bengal. Banerjee notes this as “indications of increased areas under exclusive hegemony of the main ruling party". In 2011, the TMC replaced the CPM as the ruling party in West Bengal. Another EPW paper by Kumar Rana noted that TMC won uncontested in 14% of the constituencies in 2013 panchayat elections, which suggests an even bigger use of force to crush democratic competition. Such actions are not possible without the connivance of police.

These statistics need to be seen in the larger context of a deep-rooted nexus between crime and politics in India. Political scientist Milan Vaishnav has argued in his book that voters consciously support criminals in elections to seek help in navigating a non-functional and unfair state apparatus.

The irrational support for convicted Dera chief among his followers has baffled many people. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh might have committed a crime, but his sect also provided social services such as health and education and a sense of freedom from caste exploitation in addition to spirituality. Ideally, the state should have been providing these. The void left by the state allows the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhs of the world to gain support and eventually political clout. This clout is used to put pressure on governments to go soft on their illegal activities.

It is important that accountability for what led to the large-scale violence in Haryana is fixed. However, the bigger challenge of preventing such mishaps in the future cannot ignore the larger problems in India’s polity.

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