On the same day that eight policemen were gunned down in Uttar Pradesh, two equally horrific incidents went unnoticed. First, four members of a family were murdered in Allahabad. Then, a 19-year-old Dalit girl and her father were murdered by her stalker, who belongs to the Thakur caste, days before her wedding.
These are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger crime arc that would have been labelled ‘gunda raj’ if they had occurred under the governance of a lower-caste Chief Minister. The Yogi Adityanath government’s brazen touting of encounters, overwhelmingly used against petty criminals who are either Muslim or belong to backward castes, has indeed won it popular approval. But it has also spectacularly failed to curb crime on the ground.
According to the latest available National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, in 2018, the state topped the country in crimes against women (59,445 crimes) — an 7 per cent increase from 2017. It also recorded the highest number of gang rapes and second highest number of rapes (4,323 cases) in the country. Dowry deaths, crimes against children, crimes against senior citizens, all recorded an increase from 2017. 131 elderly people were murdered in 2018, compared to 129 killed in 2017. The state ranked highest in reported murders, 4,324 cases in 2017 — the last year for which NCRB’s disaggregated data is available.
But if you ask an average person in UP whether crime levels have declined, they would probably respond with a resounding yes. They would be factually wrong, as shown above. But to paraphrase American writer Walter Lipmann, the world outside matters less than the picture in our head. And that picture in our head is shaped by the narratives of the media. Moreover, the simpler the narrative, the deeper it is embedded in the mind of the populace.
Media role in perception of crime
The narrative that has been fed for the last three years by the Hindi newspapers and TV channels, which has been largely accepted by the masses, is essentially this: ‘There was gunda raj during the Samajwadi Party rule, where criminals (especially Yadavs and Muslims) were patronised by the ruling government. Yogi Adityanath is autonomous, and separate from such gundas. And his no-holds-barred encounter policy has meant that gangsters have either surrendered, have gone underground, or been driven out of the state.’
There is a large body of research in the US showing that public perceptions of crime are almost wholly shaped by the media. For instance, a prominent paper analysed the ‘big crime scare’ of 1994 in America. Public perceptions of crime as the most important problem (MIP) facing the country jumped tenfold in two years, from 5 per cent in March 1992 to an unprecedented 52 per cent in August 1994. Yet, government data showed that both violent and non-violent crimes had declined in 1994, for the third year in a row. Academics proved that the only factor driving the public perception of a surge in crime was media coverage. The three biggest network — ABC, CBS and NBC — had just expanded their coverage of crime, which had led to the public scare.
The framing of crime coverage plays a crucial role. When the Samajwadi Party (SP) was in power, every crime committed was framed as a systematic outcome of government policy, of patronising criminals or ‘gunda raj’. Now, every crime is framed as an isolated incident that has taken place despite the Adityanath government’s policies about police encounters and zero tolerance for criminals. The horrific gangrape of mother and daughter in Bulandshahr crystallised UP’s ‘gunda raj’ image just before the 2017 assembly election. But the reported average of 12 rapes a day under Yogi Adityanth does not merit the same coverage. The actual story of UP’s ‘gundagardi’, of course, is far more complex.
According to Lucia Michelutti, an expert on Mafias in South Asia, Yogi Adityanath represents merely a reconfiguration of the mafia regime. In her book, The Wild East: Criminal Political Economies in South Asia, she explains how under the SP government, the ‘mafia raj’ was “competitive”. Whereas under the Yogi government, the mafia raj is ‘monopolistic’ — a centralised and authoritarian form of racketeering. The political economy remains the same. “The ‘mafia raj’ is still alive and is now camouflaging itself under saffron scarfs. The masquerade allows key players to keep breaking the law and maintain immunity, much in the same manner as the SP supporters did for the previous five years,” Michelutti writes.
The book presents evidence from Michelutti’s fieldwork in Janganpura where “the key Thakur and Jat bosses have now conveniently joined the BJP.” The Adityanath government is also busy packing police station houses with Thakur officers (SHOs), much like the SP had done with Yadav SHOs. “The local criminal/political leadership has remained intact despite the change of power. If anything, under the new Thakur chief minister, Rajput bosses feel emboldened,” Michelutti writes.
The ‘gunda raj’ in UP is, after all, based on an institutional bedrock: the nexus of politics, business and crime. ‘Gunda raj’ is alive in UP because this nexus is very much alive and flourishing. Parties give tickets to ‘winnable’ local elites — businessmen-politicians who dominate the local economy. These businessmen also have criminal records because of the rough business climate of Uttar Pradesh, a weakness of the regulatory State.
Political science professor Gilles Verniers explained why crime seemed to be less controlled under the SP than the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Candidates of the BSP are drawn from the local elites, and depend on the Dalit vote bank of the party for their political position. Hence, BSP chief Mayawati is able to exercise centralised control over them, and discipline them when necessary. The SP candidates are recruited from party representatives who control the local party machinery. Thus, SP leaders are more secure and less amenable to discipline from above, which inflates their sense of impunity.
The BJP represents a hybrid of these two systems. What is clear is that the BJP also draws its candidates from the same pool of businessmen-criminal politicians. In fact, the BJP tops the list of criminal candidates in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, with 37 per cent of its legislators having faced criminal cases. The party’s ability to discipline its strongman politicians is also suspect, as one witnessed in the case of rape-accused BJP leaders Chinmayand and Kuldeep Sengar. The UP Police were restrained from acting against these two Thakur strongmen, until they became a national embarrassment.
The impunity with which the mafias function in the state was laid bare when last month, UP’s sand mafia reportedly murdered a local journalist in Unnao, after he exposed their illegal operations. Days before the killing, the journalist had posted on Facebook that he might be killed by the mafia. In a similar incident in 2018, another journalist in Bisalpur in Pilibhit district was shot at by the mining mafia. The journalist’s brother had alleged that the mining mafia worked in collusion with local MLAs and ministers.
Yet, much like the Modi government has owned the issue of national security despite a poor performance, as I pointed out in a previous article, the Yogi government has owned the issue of law and order despite performing just as poorly. The mechanisms of both are essentially the same — shaping media discourse through buzzwords, symbolic actions (‘surgical strikes’, ‘police encounters’) and uncompromising rhetoric, in the place of any meaningful strategy. This has made both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Aditynath appear to be ‘tough’ leaders in terms of policies on security in the eyes of the public. And in politics, perception is everything.
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