The middle of December 2021 saw a collective call for genocide against Muslims in Haridwar by parts of the Hindutva ecosystem of the country. It was one more in a long line of declarations of hatred as well as open acts of violence against India’s Muslim minority, coming from not just mobs on the fringe but also from politicians.

What was extraordinary, though perhaps not unexpected any more, was that all such proclamations were met by a welcoming public – a body of people that had tired of the supposed complacency and lack of desired action from previous governments. This performance has found its way into the general discourse, with troll armies growing unabated on social media and dissenters often finding themselves facing police action. And perhaps the most sinister aspect of these incidents is not that they are taking place, but that they are doing so with widespread public sanction.

The role of the public

In this context, Thomas Blom Hansen’s short book, The Law of Force, becomes a timely read; a mirror to the times that are. He begins with an array of anecdotes as he works his way through interviewing RSS cadre members, Muslims affected by the years of brutal riots in Mumbai, and Dalits who seem to have dissolved in the noisy discourse of Hindu majoritarianism.

Hansen covers considerable ground in terms of a rich historical background. A Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, he brings to bear his vast scholarship on the rise of Hindu majoritarianism in India and the BJP. Some of his most famous essays and books have covered the nature of urban violence in Mumbai.

In this work too, Hansen goes back to his years of ethnographic research in order to create a narrative of the violence that has come to underscore Indian politics. Tracing the conversations he has been having for years provides fertile ground for understanding the devolution of what was once termed a unique moment in democratic tradition into the populist jingoism that has now made its way into the mainstream.

The question that he then asks is: “How has seventy years of democratic politics, activism and rambunctious electoral democracy in practice shaped and transformed the way in which political power and legitimate public authority are understood and transacted in India today?”

Hansen’s rich scholarship offers a bird’s eye view of Indian democratic polity, surveying a gamut of intellectuals who have interrogated the supposed ubiquity of the nature of democracy itself. He draws on thinkers from Rousseau to Freud, ending his intellectual exercise with references to academics writing on Indian democratic thought.

But the most unique contribution that Hansen makes in the ever-evolving debate concerns the space that the public occupies in the discourse. His argument traverses the law and crosses over into the domains of performance: What does it exactly mean to participate in the Indian polity? Is this performance of the public testament to a larger understanding of whether the democratic principles envisioned by the framers of the Constitution have managed to trickle down?

Hansen answers these questions through an investigation of the trends he has identified, especially focussing on the ways in which people imagine themselves as part of the larger electorate. A large part of the book remains grounded in the ideas of the translation of democratic values into democratic action.

The performance of violence

Hansen also pushes us to imagine politics in a sphere of violence. Violence as a way of understanding the movement of the public, the reportage of the media, the responses of the law enforcement agency – and, more important, violence as a form of public expression and performance.

The author contends that India consists of many publics, some more visible than others. As the incumbent government unleashes one draconian legislation after another, it is these publics that normally shape the rhetoric and prevent the government from completely giving into authoritarian tendencies.

But this public also demonstrates the ways in which new understandings of the performance of politics emerges. Here, as the administration institutionalises state repression and gives the police extreme power, we see the rise of a public that steps up and supports these moves.

Of course, much of the legislation that the current government uses is significantly rooted in the already voluminous body of existing laws. It isn’t as though the police was not repressing people before, or that there wasn’t a misuse of anti-terror laws. But what sets this point in time apart is the public sanction. And that the public performance of power has become more prominent than ever before.

What Hansen is arguing is not novel. But what he is adding to the discourse is the articulation of Indian politics through the understanding of those that are most affected by the politics. The public is often understood as being at the receiving end of policies, but what is forgotten is the role that this public itself plays in shaping the kind of rhetoric and policy that is platformed and understood.

Adityanath’s public proclamations of “love jihad”, UP MLA Raghuvendra Pratap Singh proclaiming that everyone who doesn’t vote for him has “Muslim blood in their veins” or even the BJP’s Kapil Mishra issuing a public call for violence in north-east Delhi all become sanctified in public memory. There is a roaring public waiting to retort to every “desh ke gaddaron ko...” with a “goli maaron saalo ko”.

The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics, Thomas Blom Hansen, Aleph Book Company.