On Tuesday, chilling footage emerged of Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy giving instructions over the phone to someone believed to be a senior police officer. He is heard exhorting this person on the other end of the line to avenge the killing of a Janata Dal (Secular) worker, pronounced “a good man”. “Kill them mercilessly in a shootout, no problem,” Kumaraswamy says. As the clip generated ripples of shock, the chief minister fumbled for explanations: it was not an order to the police, merely an emotional outburst; it was a slip of the tongue, he had meant to say “smoke out” the assailants, not kill them.
Neither explanation can cover the ugly truths that have been laid bare by a few candid moments on the phone. First, that the law and order machinery is often manipulated by the ruling establishment to settle political scores. According to Kumaraswamy, the murdered man, Honnalagere Prakash, was a “party loyalist” and this seems to have been a good enough reason for him to issue special instructions to the police. Prakash was reportedly close to the chief minister and played a role in the party’s good showing in the Assembly election earlier this year.
In his defence, Kumaraswamy seemed oblivious to the idea that the rule of law must operate without fear or favour, no matter who the victim and who the perpetrator.
Second, the chief minister’s glib reference to “shootouts”, apparently a slip of tongue, suggests what a ready option they are for eliminating people who are inconvenient to those in power or for conveniently closing cases. Allegations of staged encounters are legion in this country, from the 2005 death of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in Gujarat to the killing of eight undertrial members of the Students Islamic Movement of India who had reportedly escaped from a prison in Bhopal in October 2016. Not long ago, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath went so far as to defend encounter killings as a way of meting out justice. Arrest, trial, right to self-defence, submission of substantial evidence – in the imagination of the political class, these are dispensable to the justice system.
Finally, the brief conversation is testimony to the political impunity that emboldens such violence. While handing out a life sentence to Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for his role in the 1984 Sikh massacre, the Delhi High Court pointed out a pattern where mass killings, usually of a minority, were ordered or at least enabled by the dominant political actors of the day. Few have faced legal consequences even after decades.
As Karnataka went to the polls earlier this year, one of the campaign strategies adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party in an attempt to unseat the ruling Congress was an attempt to fan fears about a sustained attack on “Hindu activists” by “jihadi elements”. A letter written by an MP from the BJP to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh named 23 cases which appeared to bear out this theory, steering the focus to Muslim organisations. Many of these were later found to be fabricated or without any link to communal factors. The new coalition was welded together by the apparent desire of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) to battle a “common foe”. Going by Kumaraswamy’s candid phone chat, however, the new coalition government shares the BJP’s disregard for the rule of law.
Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this article stated that the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) coalition had replaced a Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka.