Vehicles on fire after the violence in Lakhimpur Kheri on 3 October, in which eight people were killed | Photo: ANI
Vehicles on fire after the violence in Lakhimpur Kheri on 3 October, in which eight people were killed | Photo: ANI
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We wrote on political violence in West Bengal, noting the difficulties in prosecuting “post-poll” violence in a violence-ridden state, in a previous article. Now, we will explore political violence in BJP-ruled states.

Two recent incidents form the backdrop of our intervention. In the first, in the midst of an eviction drive by the newly elected Assam government in Darrang district, a photographer, Bijay Shankar Baniya – he was embedded in the police force to “document” the drive – was himself caught on camera desecrating the lifeless body of an “illegal” resident who had been shot at point-blank range as he ran towards a posse of policemen waving a stick.

Fast forward a few days, a speeding convoy of SUVs, again caught on camera, mowed down four farmers and a journalist in Lakhimpur Kheri district in Uttar Pradesh. The farmers were on their way to a protest at a helipad, where the local “strongman,” also the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ajay Mishra, was scheduled to receive Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya. In the subsequent melee, four other individuals were killed, including two BJP party workers. An FIR, filed on behalf of the protesting farmers, claimed that the entire event was a conspiracy planned by the minister and his son, Ashish Mishra, who was allegedly in the first car in the convoy – the car belonged to the minister – firing shots at the protesters as the marauding convoy went by. The FIR also claimed that the immediate context of the protest – part of the ongoing farmers’ struggle across Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh against the Narendra Modi government’s controversial farm laws – was a provocative comment made by the minister at a local event on September 25 where he threatened farmers in the district with dire consequences if they continued mobilising against the farm laws.

Extraordinarily, though Ashish Mishra was named as an accused in an FIR, it took the Uttar Pradesh police over five days to arrest him – during this time he was issuing proclamations of his innocence to TV channels – and that too after a not-so-gentle prod from the Chief Justice of India. It is also worth noting that Lakhimpur Kheri was not the first instance in recent times where government functionaries were found openly declaring their “impatience” with the farmers’ movement.  On August 28, the Karnal sub-divisional magistrate, Ayush Sinha, was seen on video giving orders to the police to break the head of protesters – “Sad phod do.


Also read: Why I visited deceased BJP worker’s family in Lakhimpur Kheri: Yogendra Yadav


Violence at Lakhimpur Kheri and Darrang a new turn

Political violence is no anathema to BJP-ruled states. Indeed, a recent academic study rigorously demonstrates the causal effect of the 2014 Lok Sabha election outcome on the rising incidence of hate crimes against minorities. Sadly and deplorably, in both domestic, and increasingly so, in international political discourse – the US administration’s unwillingness to call out human rights violations clearly and unambiguously during Modi’s recent state visit is a case in point – such acts of hatred are now seen as par for the course for a government that perceives itself to be on a mission to correct the humiliation wrought on the majority Hindu community by centuries of “foreign” rule. And by that most terrible denouement of all, the Partition, that has been “criminally” underplayed by the secular historians of “Lutyens’ Delhi.”

From this perspective, an “honest” reckoning with India’s past is necessary for India’s “rise” in the comity of nations. Although this point is never stated explicitly in these accounts, a few incidents of hate from time to time are merely collateral damage in the greater “cosmic” reordering of things. The supply side to this demand for “cosmic” justice is usually well-managed. The targets of such acts of hatred are typically the most vulnerable members of the minority and the acts themselves are carried out “surgically” – though not always so as the 2020 Delhi riots attest – with minimum spillover effects into the everyday lives of the majority. One should also add to this selective use of vigilante violence, the violence that is carried out through draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA – the constitutionality of this law is under challenge – that also sits comfortably with the majority conscience.

The violence seen in Darrang and Lakhimpur Kheri, however, marks a new turn in the use of political violence under the current government. Starting from the choice of the target right through to the modus operandi involved in the attacks, what is clearly visible is a temporalisation of the BJP’s mission politics. First, despite the relentless attempts of the BJP-allied media to project these events through the lens of “appeasement” politics, the underlying issues in both cases are inextricably linked to land and livelihood. In Darrang, the so-called “encroachers” have been forced to relocate, mainly from Goalpara and Barpeta, due to riverbank erosion, a persistent problem for communities dotting the banks of the Brahmaputra. In Lakhimpur Kheri, paddy and sugarcane growers, the two major farm constituencies, are both united against the Centre’s farm laws, and for deeply contextual reasons. The paddy farmers want minimum support price (MSP) as insurance against inefficiencies in local government procurement, whereas, sugarcane farmers fear that the laws would encourage “contract” farming.

Moving on to the anatomy of the attackers, what we see here is a clear infiltration of rogue elements that are acting outside the bounds of any party or ideologically imposed discipline. Desecrating a dead body or mowing down targets involve a “surplus” of violence that is out of sync with any rational political motivation. In the literature on civil war violence,  apparently irrational massacres have been shown to have “rational” origins: they occur predominantly in areas where both sides in a war are equally competitive. India, at least most parts of it, is not in a state of civil war, and the BJP has no serious opposition in party politics at the national level.


Also read: Why PM Modi picked politicians with criminal charges to assist Amit Shah in home ministry


How local violence chains work

Indeed, we see a clear parallel between the current events and the temporalisation of another mission-driven government, the Left Front in West Bengal. Political violence was not unknown in the heydays of Left rule, but it was limited to attacks on sharply delineated “class enemies,” and enjoyed tacit acceptance from a bhadralok elite, which had long been enamoured of the idea of revolutionary violence. Once an economic crisis set in from the 1990s onwards, however, overturning two decades of moderate agricultural growth – the result of landmark land reforms and innovations in local governance – the use of “scientific” violence soon gave way to the use of criminal violence for crushing political opponents. The effect of allowing cynical merchants of violence to proliferate at the local level showed up in the coalition’s bungled response to protests against land acquisition in 2007-2008, and eventually, in the swift disintegration of Left politics altogether.

Based on his field interviews with agents of political violence in West Bengal during the last years of Left rule, and subsequently, under the TMC, Nath identifies four categories of actors who would be involved in these incidents: (i) a core group of instigators of violence; (ii) perpetrators of violence; (iii) local opportunists; and (iv) a charged public sphere.

The core group usually consisted of local to mid-level political leaders – answerable to prominent state-level leaders – having close ties with local economic elites. The latter ranged from building material suppliers, drug dealers to factory owners; in rural areas, the main players were brick manufacturing unit owners to storage and rice-mill owners or investors. The perpetrators of violence were mercenaries who were available to the highest bidders in exchange for money, liquor, and women. The local opportunists were typically the local party cadres who formed the initial crowd in any instance of political violence. The final layer comprised the lay public who were regularly bombarded with misinformation to construct us/them boundaries and mutual hatred. Crucially, this section, otherwise afraid of violence, would often end up perpetuating and participating in violent acts.


Also read: Is Himanta aping Yogi? Spotlight on Assam Police as 27 ‘criminals’ are shot dead in 5 months


Genie out of the bottle?

It is for the ongoing judicial investigations to shed light on where the Bijay Shankar Baniyas and Ashish Mishras lie in the hierarchy of local violence chains. However, statements given out by some senior BJP leaders after the Lakhimpur Kheri incident lend some validity to our propositions. After publicly exhorting BJP workers in Haryana recently to form volunteer groups to give tit-for-tat treatment to protesting farmers, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has since apologised and withdrawn his statement, saying that he did not want to “encourage any sort of clash in society.”

More tellingly, Swatantra Dev Singh, BJP’s Uttar Pradesh chief, under pressure for the Lakhimpur Kheri violence, was on record urging party workers to win over voters with good conduct since the party was not in politics “to loot” or “crush someone under a Fortuner.” In the absence of any condemnation of the violence from Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Home Minister Amit Shah, however, it is unclear whether Singh’s acknowledgement of the mundane undertones in the violence is widely shared by the party, or more worryingly, whether the genie is out of the bottle.

Subhasish Ray is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean at the Jindal School of Government & Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana; and an editor for the Journal of Genocide Research. He tweets @subhasish_ray75. 

Suman Nath is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Govt. College, West Bengal (affiliated to the West Bengal State University). Views are personal.

Read the authors’ first article on post-poll violence in Bengal here. 

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