Political commentators in these pages and elsewhere; civil society activists on streets and in their social media posts have been using all sorts of adjectives to describe the creeping authoritarianism in India’s polity. In my view, an extremely insidious form of political culture, vigilantism, is propping up the authoritarian tendencies we are witness to.
This political culture is abetted by the Narendra Modi-led government, but enforced by vigilantes. The vanguard of this regime are legions of vigilantes; these are ordinary citizens, businessmen, journalists, and of course, bureaucrats. They are the new regime’s foot soldiers, led not by the government openly, but by low-level officials and ordinary citizens seeking to ingratiate themselves with the powerful.
India’s vigilante problem
In contemporary India, there are at least two kinds of vigilantes. Ideological foot soldiers who believe India is a Hindu Rashtra, and that all citizens must follow this cardinal principle. This kind of vigilante has always been around, but a government that shares their ideological predispositions emboldens them.
A second, and more dangerous vigilantism that is currently prevalent, is seen in those who protect their self-interests by becoming loud advocates of the government’s policies.
Many of them have little ideological truck with the Bharatiya Janata Party, but they are at the forefront of implementing what they perceive to be the Narendra Modi-led government’s preferences. For example, if they believe that attacking beef eaters will give them a leg up in the political rung, they lynch beefeaters. If the government questions liberal ideas and their proponents, journalist vigilantes assault liberals and present themselves as the new vanguard of the truth. If activists are protesting government policies, they are arrested by bureaucratic vigilantes on the flimsiest of notions in a display of fealty to the government, to protect a job, or enhance a career.
Climate change activist Disha Ravi was arrested on what the judge termed “scanty and sketchy evidence”. A supplementary charge sheet in the Delhi riots, based solely on hearsay, laid out a claim that Yogendra Yadav provoked and mobilised the crowd. Movies and TV serials, such as Padmavaat (2018) and Tandav (2021), were targeted by a handful of those whose ‘Hindu’ sentiments were hurt (because the vigilantes apparently speak for all Hindus). Comedian Munawar Faruqui was jailed for jokes he never made because of a complaint made by a BJP MLA’s son. And more recently, nuns from Kerala were attacked and forced off a train over unfounded fears of forced conversion.
In many of these cases, there is often no high-level directive from the government or top party leadership. Mid-level bureaucrats, police officials, local politicians, and activists take it upon themselves to enthusiastically promote what they perceive to be the government’s interests. These individuals want to prove their loyalty through actions they perceive might enhance their political or career chances. This phenomenon did exist in pre-Modi India as well, but the frequency and scale of vigilantism (with its very focused ideological targeting) may have reached another level today.
Why does the BJP government not act against these vigilantes? The new political culture works to the advantage of the BJP government. For the first time in decades, the ruling party in India has a clear parliamentary majority. And the BJP is using its political power to cement its authority and ideological agenda. Government officials and many citizens who seek access to the State understand that they are dealing with a dispensation that does not hesitate to use its power to undermine its political opponents.
Hence, to have its will, the government no longer needs to issue official and open directives. Power is exercised silently. From the bureaucracy to the police and citizenry, vigilantes take it upon themselves to further the BJP’s agenda, and the government, through its silence on the excesses, creates more vigilante actions.
A losing game
The government does sometimes send out more direct messages that it will not tolerate dissent. Lower-level bureaucrats and police officials hear this. To protect their self-interest, they seek to please their political bosses through over-zealousness in the pursuit of the ruling party’s dispensation. This allows the government to deny official culpability easily.
The rise of vigilantism, for which the evidence over the last year is overwhelming, carries great risks for Indian democracy. In the United States, which came perilously close to overturning a legitimate election, former president Donald Trump correctly read the motivations of most national politicians. They feared his influence over their careers, and many Senate and House Republicans went along with Trump in questioning the elections. State-level Republicans and local judges saved the sanctity of the process in Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan, and other states. They refused to bow to presidential pressure and prevented an ugly political battle.
Could we imagine something similar happening in India? Will local officials, judges, and citizens question our political bosses if they ask for something inappropriate?
Vigilantism does not bode well for citizens, the ruling party, or the vigilantes themselves. Any citizen can be subject to the ad hoc actions of a vigilante. Of course, whether the actions of the current Indian government are spurred by vigilantism or just a simple stifling of dissent is cold comfort for those who face the State’s wrath, including religious minorities, political dissidents, and intellectuals whose ideas are deemed ‘seditious’.
The BJP government is playing with fire. While these vigilantes do empower the party and its ideological agenda contemporaneously, soon it will have little control over the actions of thousands of vigilantes who interpret the BJP’s needs on their terms and act accordingly. If the regime continues on this path, it will be remembered for its excesses, and no BJP government wants history to place it on par with Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 Emergency.
The vigilantes also face dangers. They are competing with each with a holier than thou attitude. In that competition, they should heed the words of German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller, who supported Hitler before being arrested by the Nazis:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The author is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi.