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India’s democracy is going through some troubled times. Exhibit 1: On Wednesday, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Uttar Pradesh who holds the rank of a minister expressed his support for two men accused of shooting at Hyderabad member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, Asaduddin Owaisi.

India is no stranger to political violence. However, even by those standards, a minister from the ruling party cheering on the assassination attempt on an MP is new. This comes a few months after senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid’s house was attacked and set on fire by Hindutva extremists.

Communal violence directed at minorities in India is a decades-old phenomenon, dating right to the moment of Independence. But India is seeing a new wave of vigilante violence by Hindutva extremist groups so powerful that even top Muslim politicians are under attack. What does this mean for the future of Indian politics?

When did this new wave start? In 2015, Mohammed Akhlaq, 52, was lynched by a mob from his own village who accused him of eating beef. What was truly remarkable in this grisly crime, however, was the support the accused received from powerful sections. Not only did they get bail soon, they received explicit support from the BJP: an MLA promised them jobs and they were even invited to a party rally by chief minister Adityanath.

Akhlaq’s lynching set off a pattern. In 2018, a Union minister garlanded eight men convicted of murdering a Muslim cattle trader from Jharkhand when they were out on bail. Two years later, another Union minister led a crowd to chant about “shooting traitors dead”, a slogan used frequently by Hindutva leaders to oppose the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Union minister Jayant Sinha feting a man convicted of murdering a Muslim cattle trader.

Support from the highest levels means that Hindutva radicals have upped the ante in the past few years. Gau rakshaks or so-called cow protection groups have established an iron grip over states such as Uttar Pradesh, assaulting and, at times, killing people with few legal repercussions.

Increasingly, hate crimes against Muslims have started to be broadcast by the perpetrators themselves, assured of the fact that little criminal punishment will follow. In fact, they know that the violence may even be rewarded politically. In 2017, for example, a Muslim man was hacked and burnt to death, with the murder being captured on video by the attacker himself. Incredibly, the gruesome killing did not lead to outrage but shows of strength by Hindutva groups, who hoisted religious flags over a local court in Udaipur.

As Scroll.in reported in 2021, broadcasting a hate crime is now a career advancement tool for many Hindutva leaders. Moreover, associating with hate crime is beneficial even at the highest levels. In 2019, for example, the BJP nominated Pragya Thakur as its Lok Sabha candidate for Bhopal. Thakur is an accused and under trial in the 2008 bombing case in which 10 people were killed and 82 injured in the Muslim-majority town of Malegoan.

Hindutva groups storm a local court in Udaipur as a show of strength following the murder of a Muslim man. Credit: https://twitter.com/Drshadabsk

The impact of the widespread growth of violent groups is obviously immense as far as the country’s 200 million-strong Muslim community is concerned. The country’s largest minority now feels physically unsafe and unprotected by the law. This was partly the reason behind the massive mobilisation in 2020. While the new Citizenship Amendment Law was the proximate cause, fears around physical safety also played a significant part in prompting Muslims from around the country to hit the streets.

At the moment, the Bharatiya Janata Party has, tacitly if not openly, supported these new groups. However, it must be noted that many of these new groups have no actual organisational links with the BJP, with outreach networks often more via social media than anything else.

As Scroll.in had reported in 2021, an infamous extremist priest from Uttar Pradesh, Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, often receives tacit support from the BJP rank and file. However, in some cases, BJP functionaries on the ground were also annoyed with the attention Saraswati was able to garner – attention that should have come to the BJP.

Since then, Saraswati has had run-ins with the BJP. In August 2021, a video of him surfaced abusing female leaders in the BJP. In January, he was arrested by the BJP-led government in Uttarakhand for hate speech.

Similar unintended effects can be seen with the rise of cow protection gangs. With cattle trade grinding to a halt, farmers in the Hindi belt have been forced to let loose cows that have stopped giving milk. The effect of this has been the rise of massive herds of feral cattle, roaming states like Uttar Pradesh, causing huge losses to crops and a large number of automotive accidents.

So much so that it is also one of the main hurdles for the BJP in the ongoing Assembly elections. Yet, gau rakshaks are so powerful that a year after they allegedly shot dead a police officer in Uttar Pradesh, they even installed a statue of the man accused of the killing.

At the moment, it is unclear how the BJP can stop them, even if it, hypothetically, would want to.

The charred carcass of Inspector Subodh Singh's car. He was allegedly shot dead by cow protection extremists. Credit: Abhishek Dey.

Similar chaos was seen in Delhi in 2020, where BJP leaders, including most infamously Kapil Mishra, threatened anti-CAA protestors. Actual violence broke out only a few hours later. The week-long riots that followed were not only devastating to the victims but also India’s image.

Ironically, the Delhi Police has itself claimed that the riots – that it should have been responsible for stopping – could not have been a “greater international embarrassment” for the Modi government given that they took place at the same time President Donald Trump was in the city. Indians like to claim to be on the cusp of superpowerdom but anyone looking from the outside and observing even the national capital not immune to a complete breakdown in law and order would probably come away with a very different impression.

India is a chaotic place at the best of times. But for the state to allow, and in fact even encourage violent independent groups to establish themselves, is the state shooting itself in the foot. While these extremists do benefit the ideologically-aligned BJP in the short term, inevitably there is a high chance of this spinning out of control with unpredictable consequences.

The example of Pakistan is a relevant one, given there too, the state handed significant control over to extremist groups, leading to a long, and still ongoing, spell of chaos. Notably with 1.3 billion people, India is more than six times the size of Pakistan and, should vigilante violence cross a threshold, far more difficult to control.

Local is national

The prime minister of the second-largest nation would surely have a lot to do. Why then is he spending his time launching tiny developmental works?

One answer to that question is that we are in a new phase of centralised personality-based politics. This means the Supreme Leader is often personally credited with development and welfare. And come election time, every little bit helps.

Chinese whispers

Speaking of trains, this before and after image of China’s high-speed rail network is going viral. In just 12 years, China has somehow managed to connect up the entire country with trains that can cross speeds of 300 kilometre/hour (India’s fastest touches 180).