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BJP is playing a dangerous game over lynchings, and it could backfire badly

While it may be able to get away by pummelling a weak Congress in television debates or elections, the flip side is that the image of India as a place where the rule of law and constitutional order is supreme is bound to take a beating.

Updated: Jul 27, 2018, 17:54 PM IST

As India frets over mob lynchings that have led to illegal killings of innocent people in the hands of paranoid activists or self-appointed vigilantes, there are three questions that loom large.

-     Are these political killings encouraged by politicians out to whip up a frenzy that might fetch them votes?
-     Are these ideological killings that have been driven by an overwhelming impression of what is right and what is wrong in a manner that involves ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands? 
-     Or is this something worse than these two in which law enforcers are doing their jobs in a state of bureaucratic drift ? 

I am afraid the current wave of lynchings in the country amounts to something worse. If you go beyond heated exchanges between the spokespersons of the BJP and the Congress, there is a more serious problem lurking in the political woodworks of India. 

It seems lynchings need not have a single motive. While what is called cow vigilantism, the business of trying to protect a holy animal as in what happened in Rajasthan's Alwar last week, is the dominant motif, there are new incidents such as the latest one in Ghaziabad where a Muslim man has been beaten up for trying to marry a Hindu woman with her clear consent. There have been other killings involving wild rumours about child lifters encouraged by horrible forwarded messages on WhatsApp. As if all that was not enough, we have the bizarre accusation by fugitive diamond trader Mehul Choksi that if he comes back to India to face charges of fraud, he might even get lynched!

Clearly, we are witnessing a case of what seems like misplaced vigilantism growing into a spectre of chaotic social behaviour in an atmosphere that makes us lose our faith in rule of law and governance. Here is where we need to distinguish between those who sit in positions of power and responsibility and those who make idle accusations or statements. Ministers and officials cannot say or do something that smacks of administrative lapse or worse, a constitutional crisis. And that is what seems to be happening. 

Here is where the Bharatiya Janata Party is playing with fire. The consequences can be grave. While it may be able to get away by pummelling a weak Congress in television debates or elections, the flip side is that the image of India as a place where the rule of law and constitutional order is supreme is bound to take a beating - if it has not already done so. There is no point blaming the media for playing up stories, Congress for driving a narrative of BJP being anti-Muslim or entertain a disregard for what the world thinks of India.

As a globally connected economy in the digital age that welcomes foreign investment and wants to create jobs for hundreds of millions, India can simply not afford to have a state of administrative drift. Here is where statements by BJP's own ministers, be it at the Centre or in states like Rajasthan matter. There are three points to note here.

-     Ministers cannot afford to be even casual or neutral about law enforcement. They have to sound alarmist and mean business. They have to go out of the way both to prove political opponents wrong and to convince investors and citizens about the rule of law.
-     Courts have to be taken seriously. The political narrative cannot in the name of countering a rival party run counter to Supreme Court's wishes and invite contempt of court charges. There is a clear and present danger that this might be so. Home minister Rajnath Singh's bureaucratic advisories seeking enforcement of Supreme Court views do not go far enough.
-     Errors need not be errors of commission. Errors can be of misplaced comparisons, lackadaisical behaviour, ominous silences or casual vagueness.

Now, consider this. UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath mentions the need for protection of cows alongside his views against lynchings, giving the two a casual equivalence that sends mixed signals. It is important to remember that ideological posturing in a time of administrative responsibility can be a double-edged sword. General statements of this kind by the executive head of India's most populous state will be perceived as an act of arrogance internationally. More important, a law against cow slaughter is for the government to enforce. Modern governance does not recognise activists or vigilantes as legally authorised entities. Outdated ideological posturing can backfire like hell.

Union minister Smriti Irani makes out lynchings to be a Congress vs BJP match and pits the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which Congress leaders stand accused of violence against BJP's own position. This might look good in a TV studio or a Twitter outrage, but not where rule of law should take precedence over political brownie points. Those in power and those who are out of it have different standards of responsibilities. Does Ms Irani know this?

Union minister Arjun Ram Meghwal says Prime Minister Narendra Modi's detractors are trying to defame the central government by raking up lynching incidents. But he is referring to well-documented incidents verifiable by independent media, both domestic and international. By attributing macabre political motives to disturbing violence, he is walking into a trap -- and he may be taking his favourite leader with him there.

Rajasthan's home minister Gulab Chand Kataria says the death of a man hit by lynch mobs suspecting a Muslim of cow smuggling is a case of death in police custody. This actually makes it sound worse. Can Rajasthan, which is India's most cherished tourist destination for foreigners alongside Kerala, hope to do well with statements like these?

The BJP is playing with fire. That is bad enough. What is worse is that its senior echelons do not seem to be aware of the lurking consequences.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)