Feature: Why is anti-civilian violence rising in India?

JAYANT PANKAJ

 

 

The German military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz said “War is nothing but the continuation of policy by other means” in his famous work “On War” published around 1832. As catchy as it may sound, the continuation of policy in the Indian democracy is dependable upon daily ‘violence’. In the past few years, violence by the government and other versatile non-state actors against civilians has increased, making India a laboratory of violence.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a real-time crisis mapping group, which specialises in processing disaggregated conflict data collection and analysis, shows that from January 2016 to October 2022, South Asia recorded almost 16,270 cases of anti-civilian violence, of which, 62.4% cases of violence happened only in India.

Figure 1: The rising cases of anti-civilian violence in South Asia

Figure 1 shows that in 2016, 1,069 violent incidents steadfastly took a sharp rise in 2019 with 2,657 cases; gradually, this fell back to 1,119 such incidents in 2022. The annual increase in violent incidents started happening in 2016. Initially, factors like riots and protests were the primary reasons for the high numbers (ACLED, 2016). By 2019, there was an increase in mob violence incidents in India by 57%. This was before the Lok Sabha elections, where greater tussle between political parties to win the elections led to surmounting political violence. This points to how politics has become criminalized over the years (ACLED, 2019). Interestingly, in 2021, the coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions pacified violence among state and non-state actors (ACLED, 2021). However, in 2022, this violence is increasing again. Data suggests that  India records approximately 4-5 cases of civilian violence each day. Add the number of unregistered cases, and this number would be much higher.

The surge in violence is a matter of grave concern. What is even more concerning is that the state has not only failed to contain these incidents, but it has also acted as an inheritor of violence in some cases. On 24th February 2020, during the Delhi pogrom, a video surfaced where five injured people were lying on the ground surrounded by the Delhi police. The footage showed them being beaten and forced to sing the national anthem. Those injured were Muslims, and one of them named Faizan passed from the brutal attack.

 

 

 

 

Figure 2: Map spotting the states with the most anti-civilian violence in India

The state-wise data on violence in figure 2 shows that most of the violent rift has been occurred in the Northern, Central, Eastern, and Northeast regions; Jammu and Kashmir (13.1%), West Bengal (12.1%), Uttar Pradesh (9.1%), Punjab (7.1%) and Bihar (5.5%) contribute the highest to cases of violence in India. Among the various kinds of violence, attacks (43.9%) and mob violence (43%) are common denominators that ruled between January 2016 to October 2022, according to ACLED. However, the context of this violence varies from state to state, such as the cases of army torture and targeted militant attack in Kashmir, the rising gang war in Punjab, frequent police encounters in UP, cases of mob violence in Bihar,  the increasing political violence in Bengal, and forced encroachment in Assam and so on. The state and non-state actors differ, but the practice of violence remains the same.

Anti-civilian is a broader term; hence, Figures 3 and 4 deconstruct the term anti-civilian violence into smaller units, dividing them into the perpetrators and victims.

Figure 3: Perpetrators of violence in India

Figure 3 shows that anti-civilian attacks by militants and security forces go hand in hand. Their fundamental targets, however, differ on a vast scale. The militants have either attacked security forces, alleged police informers, or, in some cases, high-profile politicians. Kashmir, Odisha, and Manipur are a few notable states that have seen rising militancy over the years. On 25th August 2022, in Odisha’s Kandhamal district, members of the Maoist cadre allegedly killed a youth framing him as a police informant.

The security forces, on the other hand, target militants in counter-insurgency operations. While doing so, it also costs the lives of civilians through forced detentions and extra-judicial killings. On August 10th, 2019, Bashir Ahmed Dar, a person from southern Kashmir was allegedly subjected to torture by the Indian armed forces in a crackdown, a few days after the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir. The violence perpetrated by state and non-state forces on civilians predates much before BJP came to power. However, after 2014, such violent incidents have only risen.

 

How do we comprehend the growing violence between these two actors? The “Status of Policing India Report 2019; Police Adequacy and Working Conditions” was published by the Common Cause (CC) and Lokniti-Center for the studies of Developing Societies (CSDS). It interviewed around 12,000 police officials across 21 states in India. Among them, around 75% of police personnel agreed that “it is justified to act violently towards criminals for the greater good of society.” Approximately 83% of police personnel believed beating criminals to extract confessions in severe cases was justifiable. Interestingly, the survey shows that personnel who are more likely to believe in violent means have had higher educational backgrounds. This explains that the flaw lies with the ‘protector of state’, which presumes that violence is a means to reach a just end, even at the cost of innocent lives.

 

Saul Newman argues in his article that there is an implicit relationship between violence, sovereignty, and law in the context of terrorism. On the behest of preserving the laws of a democratic society, the state transgresses its boundaries of legality to achieve order in society. Hence, he said, terrorist attacks usually “threaten to expose the emptiness  and indeterminacy at the base of the symbolic authority of the law and the state.” It unravels the state’s violent and mysterious foundations by behaving violently to garner the spectacle of people.

 

When state actors enforce violence on a certain section of society, people from that certain section are bound to retaliate. The state employs violence to achieve societal order, whereas non-state actors use violence to achieve vigilante justice. Hence, the circle of violence becomes inevitable.

 

On 28th April, 2022, PM Modi said while addreassing a rally in Assam’s Diphu town that Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 could be removed completely from the North Eastern (NE) states due to the prevalence of peace since 2014. There is partial roleback of AFSPA from some areas of NE. Though, on 1st October, 2022, the central government has again extended AFSPA at the four states of NE cited looming uncertainty over the ongoing Naga peace talks. Anykind of peace talks is only possible, if the government decides to foster accountability and trust with the other party. Hence, removing the AFSPA in its entirety could open the channels for conversation, otherwise, the solutions would not be enough. Promising the removal of AFSPA from NE states can also be taken as BJP’s move to appease voters; which means BJP has been trying to bring peaceful transition in the NE. Though, the extension of AFSPA is merely a pretension fall flat on the earth.

 

Surprisingly, even the non-AFSPA regions such as Chattisgarh or Odisha have seen overburdened human rights violence through the hands of security forces. The deeper problem in society is the lack of dialogue between the police and the armed militia. This lackness is the fundamental flaw of democracy that gives ample space to conflict and the pathway to violence in society.

 

The rising Hindutva violence is a matter of concern (visible in figure 3). The Sangh Parivar-affialiated organisations, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and so forth, linked to the ruling party, the BJP, are the facilitator of violence. Their violence is often perpetrated on Muslim and Christian minorities in India, whom they consider foreigners. The political scientist Ashutosh Varshney argues that, in India, the fundamentals of democracy are gradually eroded by the democratically elected leaders, which he refers to as a form of “democratic backsliding” that started with the rise of Narendra Modi in 2014.

The year 2014 is a landmark moment in the history of Indian democracy; the ruling party promised the Indian voters to bring development; however, it ended up transforming normal streets into sites for performative violence, where Hindutva attackers publicly demonstrate their sentiments, with minorities and people from marginalised communities often being on the receiving end of violence. As democracy gets reduced to electoral mileage, conflict and violence become daily activities. With the rise of the BJP, there is also a large set of unidentified actors that has emerged in the past few years who have been perpetuating violence on people.

Figure 4: Victims of anti-civilian violence in India

Figure 4 looks at victims of the growing assertion of anti-civilian violence. Interestingly, most violence happens among various political parties. A large chunk of violence occurred before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Campaign violence is the status quo before the state assembly elections and local elections. More candidates have been entering into politics with criminal cases which raises the chances of the candidate enforcing violence in their constituency. Some candidates behave violently after not receiving the party ticket to contest an election, and so forth. The political scientist Ursula Daxecker argues in her research paper in Indian politics, that a significant reason why in some states, there are the chances of elite candidates employing violence is because of “malapportionment.” It is a kind of institutional bias that provides a strategic incentive to the contested candidates. The well-apportioned or less apportioned states such as UP and Bihar are among the few where candidates can exert minimum control over the electoral outcomes as such areas have more heterogeneous voters. Hence, the candidates employ more violence to win seats. Interestingly, ACLED data shows the rising violent conflict in these particular states before electoral campaigns.

Figure 4 also points out that people from marginalised sections and minorities are the biggest victims of violence. It also shows how several occupations, such as journalism or cattle trade, become life-threatening. The extension of violence in specific communities or professions can lead to the construction of an ecosystem of hate. In an interview with France 24 English, Vijaykant Chauhan said, “for our country and for our religion, we will do anything. Cows are like mothers to us. We will not hesitate to kill or die for them.” He is the Head of the Vande Matram vigilante group based in UP. Interestingly, UP is one of the states where cows also die due to a lack of green fodder and required medicine under the Yogi administration. On 15th September 2020, Zakir Ali Tyagi, 21, a journalism student, was caught by the UP police upon suspicion of cow slaughter. Tyagi said he was caught being vocal against the current government.

India has ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the World Freedom Index, 2021, which international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, shows how India has become dangerous for journalists exposed to frequent violence.

There are different actors who, often, use violence as a means to establish their agenda. The continuation of this policy only threatens the future outcome to secure peace. There is an urgent need of fostering trust in dialogue and abandon violence. The government has to be the first player to commence the dialogue to foster peace.

Jayant Pankaj works around the politics of data. He is currently pursuing post graduate diploma in multimedia journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Follow his updates on @Pankajwaa

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