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Fear without a name

Incredible India is no longer a hyperbole; what would have been incredible some time back is happening every day. Take ‘love jihad’. It represents one of the most amazing acts of myth-making in the modern world. Yet the term is now as much a part of life as, say, gauraksha or ‘anti-nationalism’. What on earth are these insanities? No Indian in 2018 would bother to ask this since the incredible is part of the way we live now. Yet this sense of inversion does not require much subtlety in its production. Recent events in Uttar Pradesh, for example, lay the process bare.

Three months after the gentleman called Yogi Adityanath became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, he is reported to have said in a television interview, “Agar apradhkarengetohthokdiyejayenge(if they commit crimes, they will be finished).” This could well have been a stern warning to criminals, even if it sounded as though encounter killings were going to be the favoured strategy of attacking crime in UP. Subsequent events suggest that the second thesis had more substance. India need not be coy about encounter killings. Most states are familiar with them, some more than others. Two famous cases in Gujarat are still part of media discourse, while UP would include in its records the 1987 Hashimpura alleged massacre and the 1991 Pilibhit encounter case. Only a long and widespread history of ‘encounters’ could have led to the Supreme Court’s unmistakable message in 2012: “It is not the duty of the police officers to kill the accused merely because he is a dreaded criminal… This Court has repeatedly admonished trigger happy police personnel, who liquidate criminals and project the incident as an encounter. Such killings… are not recognised as legal by our criminal justice administration system. They amount to State sponsored terrorism.”

The Supreme Court’s statement indicates that no matter how contentious a police encounter might be, a structure to define and judge it is always present, although the effectiveness of the processes leading up to trial may be less than ideal. Uttar Pradesh’s present uniqueness lies not in police encounters, but in the re-presentation of these as government policy. When listing the government’s achievements after six months in power, the chief minister is reported to have said that crime was being controlled because the police had been given a ‘free hand’.


Although the National Human Rights Commission had asked for a report on an encounter killing, and the state legislative council chairperson asked for a CBI inquiry into two of them, the chief minister reportedly said to the council in February this year that in 1,200 encounters, more than 40 criminals have been killed and that this trend will not stop. Other reports claim that 49 were dead, including four policemen, that over 370 people had been injured and 3,300 arrested.

The chief minister’s declaration is intriguing. All encounter deaths, according to the police, have been in self-defence. The law certainly gives protection if self-defence is needed, that is, if the person ‘encountered’ attacks the police. But it also makes clear that force is for self-defence only, justified and proportionate to the threat presented, and never retaliatory or used for revenge. The UP police have been shot at in each encounter, or most of them, sometimes by one or two men ‘planning a big crime’, or charged with burglary, robbery, sometimes murder, usually from bikes or cars. How did the chief minister know in February that the police will always be shot at so the trend will not stop?

The Opposition and other sources claim that most of the dead are from the minority community, making a poor living when not in custody under various charges, Dalits and members of other backward classes. Inevitably, the families’ accounts of the meetings with the police do not match the police’s, neither are the accounts of wounds on the bodies consistent with mere shooting. Some claim their men did not know how to drive bikes. But the police usually recover guns from the sites, they report; so there is no reason to doubt the dead men’s criminality even when they are just charged with stealing. In September 2017, the UP police communications department announced that the prize money for arresting criminals was being raised for different ranks of policemen. For superintendents of police, for example, it would go from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2,50,000 for each criminal. One report said that a reward of up to one lakh rupees would be given to a police team that conducts an encounter. The NHRC, supported by the court, directs that no gallantry award should be given unless the occasion of gallantry is properly established.

Part of the process of inverting expectations is the careful calibration of what is publicized and what remains untold. Have the police recovered any of the stolen goods or money? Surely that would add to their glory in what is being called the “swachhbadmashabhiyan”? With so many murder charges, can we ask who was murdered by which encounter victim? But that might be a crime. The Opposition had demanded due process. It was reported that the chief minister asked the Opposition why it was showing such sympathy for criminals.

Here the inversion is complete. At one level, the method is without subtlety: turn the Constitution and law on their heads while occupying a constitutionally designated chair. Our form of parliamentary democracy does give the scope to show that might is, crudely enough, right. A BharatiyaJanata Party chief minister’s might in his own territory is complemented by the might emanating from the Centre. But the clash of the constitutional position with constitutional tenets and the laws derived from them overturns an inner sense of order that people are used to. This goes far beyond and inward than dismay at the seeming transformation of the police into a terror army or the reduction of other institutional authorities into ineffectual grumblers.

The UP chief minister’s reported comment about the Opposition’s sympathy for criminals makes a bigger point than being just a political attack against his predecessors for indulging criminals. Yogi Adityanath is moral: he is cleansing the state of prisoners. To oppose him is immoral. Yet the perceived reality clashes with any recognizable sense of morality and natural justice. The means of cleansing can be perceived as illicit, the accounts often not just false but impossible, and an identifiable population segment appears to be at the receiving end.

What is being produced, therefore, is an enveloping fear. It is not just a physical fear, but a fear of the unnameable. The presence of due processes of law and institutions of recourse provides a hardly noticed stability; their disappearance is like the vanishing of the ground beneath. They are different expressions of the agreed principles of legitimacy without which society cannot function, and their loss causes terrifying confusion.

The confusion is not the achievement of UP alone; the government there is an excellent example because it is so open about the methods of inversion. The uncertainty mesmerizes us into accepting a yogi not just as a politician but as a chief minister who is apparently preaching lawlessness in the name of morality, a baba touting commodities of a ‘patriotic’ provenance, just the advertising of which runs into uncountable millions, other sadhus entering government elsewhere as ministers of state. It is not just Ram Navami, once a peaceful ceremony, that has changed character. The proponents of the ancient religion who now suffuse the country with their colour have cleansed saffron, too, of its traditional associations with renunciation and sacrifice. How would a child now elucidate the symbolism of the Indian flag?