The death of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in the Hathras district of western Uttar Pradesh – after she was gang-raped by four Thakur men, strangled, her spine, limbs paralysed – followed by the 3-am cremation of her body by the police, is only the latest reminder of how unsafe the state has become for its most disadvantaged citizens.

Although UP was fifth by crime rate against Dalits in 2019, registered crimes against Dalits – many are not recorded – in UP rose 47% over four years to 2018, according to the latest available data from the National Crime Records Bureau (Following UP, crimes against Dalits rose 26% in Gujarat, 15% in Haryana, 14% in Madhya Pradesh and 11% in Maharashtra – states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party over these years, which may be a coincidence).

In 2019, India’s most populous state, with about 16% of the country’s population, also accounted for more than 25% of crimes against women and girls and gang rapes, according to the NCRB. At least three more rapes were reported the day after the death of the Hathras teen, who the police claim was not raped.

The inability to control crime in UP runs alongside a clampdown by its chief minister Yogi Adityanath on cow-slaughter and the small-scale beef trade – run largely by Muslims and Dalits – his misuse of preventive-detention and other laws against dissenters, the encouragement of extra-judicial killings, a campaign against so-called “love jihad” of Muslim men marrying Hindu women and indifference to court orders.

From his first days in office, the chief minister has not hesitated to use the instruments of governance to create and consolidate a state that draws on the concerns of vigilante groups and puts Hindus, especially the advantaged “upper” castes, first and uses the law and the police to target, punish, defame, imprison and in some cases even kill Muslims and dissenters, as we chronicle.

Relatives mourn the death of the Dalit woman who died on September 29 after being gangraped by four upper-caste men in in Hathras. Photo credit: AFP

Handpicked for Hindutva

In 2017, after the BJP and its allies won 325 seats out of 403 in the state assembly elections, Adityanath was hand-picked by the national BJP leadership – and presumably its ideological leader the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – to lead UP.

This choice marked a significant watershed moment in the advance of the BJP in the Indian republic, as it signalled an endorsement of a model of governance that openly and unapologetically targeted Muslim citizens and political dissidents as public enemies.

Born in 1972 in a Thakur family in a village in the mountainous district of Pauri Garhwal in what is now Uttarakhand, Ajay Mohan Bisht was drawn as a young man to the Ram Janmbhoomi movement to demolish the Babri mosque at Ayodhya and build a Ram temple.

He renounced his family at the age of 21 after graduating in mathematics, to become a disciple of Mahant Avaidyanath, chief priest of the Gorakhnath Math. Mahant Avaidyanath was elected to Parliament on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket. The earlier mahant (chief priest) of this temple, Digvijaynath, the first in independent India, was arrested in connection with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and went on to become in 1967 an MP on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket.

Bisht assumed the name Yogi Adityanath and was anointed by Avaidyanath as his successor. He became the chief priest of the Gorakhnath Math after the death of Mahant Avaidyanath in 2014.

At 26, Adityanath was elected MP on a BJP ticket in 1998 from the Gorakhpur constituency, and was re-elected for five successive terms. When Adityanath first became an MP, he pointedly announced he was not looking for Muslim votes.

Throughout his political career, Adityanath has been vocal about that anti-Muslim bias.

Bias against Muslims

If they kill one Hindu, then we will kill 100 Muslims,” Adityanath declared in 2007. Among his notable contributions to Hindutva politics was to raise a Hindu militia called the Hindu Yuva Vahini in 2002.

Scholars Chaturvedi, Pandey and Gellner observed that when Adityanath established the Hindu Yuva Vahini, it mainly attracted upper-caste, unemployed youth who did not find a space in the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party, the two parties that had established their dominance in UP politics by then, claiming to represent the interests of disadvantaged castes.

In their fact-finding report on riots in the eastern UP town of Mau in 2005, Vibhuti Narain Rai, Rooprekha Verma and Nasiruddin Haider Khan spoke presciently of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, comprising “mostly unemployed youth, small level criminals and the youth struggling for identity”, fighting Muslims with “arson, destruction of property and beating”.

The Hindu Yuva Vahini provided much-needed muscle power to Adityanath and helped consolidate his political power in Gorakhpur and nearby districts. The slogan popularised by them was, “Gorakhpur mein rehna hai toh Yogi Yogi kehna hai” (if you wish to stay in Gorakhpur, you must chant the Yogi’s name).

In 2007, his remarks inflamed a communal conflagration, after a Hindu youth was killed in skirmishes sparked by disruptions to a Muharram procession. He stirred the mobs with emotive references to “revenge”, “pride” and “justice”, and mobs destroyed a tomb and rioted in surrounding districts for a full week.

Kafeel Khan, a government doctor from Gorakhpur became the victim of the wrath of the UP administration after 63 children died in a Gorakhpur government hospital in 2017 because of the breakdown of oxygen supply. Photo credit: IANS

The CM’s promises

Since he was installed as Chief Minister in 2017, Adityanath has not toned down his rhetoric.

Whether it is a “thoko neeti” of extra-judicial police killings, popularly called “encounters”, action against slaughterhouses and alleged cow slaughter, crushing opposition to the new citizenship regime, public shaming and confiscation of property of protesters, or the proposed ordinance on “love jihad”, Adityanath wears his biased politics on his saffron sleeve as a badge of honour.

Early in his career as chief minister, Adityanath promised to control crime in the state using all means, lawful and unlawful, whatever it takes.

In an interview to a TV channel in 2017, Adityanath proclaimed, Agar apradh karenge, toh thok diye jaayenge.” (If “they” commit crimes “they” will be shot dead”). It was the start of what is now known as the thok do (shoot down) policy of police extra-judicial killings.

Over three years to 2020, 124 alleged criminals were shot dead in 6,476 “encounters”, according to data compiled by caste and religion and released by the UP police to the media. Up to 37% of those killed in these encounters until August were Muslim, almost double their proportion (19%) in the state’s population.

This means a police “encounter” every five hours every day during the course of Adityanath’s tenure. In a January 2019 letter to district magistrates, the chief secretary listed these “encounters” among the prominent “achievements” of the Adityanath administration.

Extra-judicial killings are not unprecedented or unique to the Adityanath government. But the “encounter” campaign led by Adityanath crosses new lines because the data show that those killed in these encounters are petty criminals, those against whom no charge has been proven and, as we said, are predominantly Muslims, Dalits and other backward castes.

Starting with slaughterhouses

Beginning in March 2017, Adityanath ordered the closure of numerous slaughter-houses, claiming that these were operating illegally, without a licence. Illegal only because the state refused to give them licences, the crackdown against slaughterhouses was one of his first official moves against Muslims.

These actions followed agitations by his own outfit, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, and the Bajrang Dal, against the grant of licenses to slaughter animals. Earlier governments had also withheld licenses but they did not shut the slaughter-houses.

Adityanath’s administration registered 76 cases under the National Security Act, 1980, for alleged cow slaughter, enabling the state to jail people for 12 months without even registering an FIR, let alone establishing their crime.

The NSA does not define the term “national security”. What it does is define situations in which an order for detention under the NSA may be passed. These include threats to the defence or security of India, neither of which were related to alleged trading in beef.

The violation of due process, as we said, extends over a gamut of issues, most involving Muslims.

Staged killings

On the early morning of September 20, 2018, in a village near the western UP city of Aligarh, TV channels broadcast live coverage of an alleged “encounter” of 17-year-old Naushad and Mustakeem, both 22 and allegedly wanted by the UP police for murder and theft.

The live coverage revealed journalists talking to and even giving information to police officials during the “encounter”. Later, it was not even clear that Naushad and Mustakeem were named in police records as dangerous criminals.

Naushad was a minor who should have been treated under juvenile justice laws, which also require confidentiality about his identity. The necessary legal fig-leaf for most police “encounters” is the police claim that the shooting was spontaneous and necessary. Most “encounter” reports appear to follow a script: a criminal is suddenly intercepted and shoots at the police, who are left with no option except to return fire in self-defence. Or a police vehicle meets with an accident, after which the criminal tries to grab a weapon and flee and is shot.

But if journalists were invited in advance to witness the “encounter”, even this legal fig-leaf was abandoned.

There are many who make the argument (here and here) that the violation of due process and civil rights of a few are justified in view of a long drawn and cumbersome legal process. Others argue (here and here) that this is flawed from both a legal and moral lens because justice is indivisible and greater justice can never be securely built on a foundation of state-enabled injustice.

But even for those who accept this utilitarian rationalisation of extrajudicial killings as necessary bitter medicine to bring down crime, the Adityanath administration has nothing to prove that its “thok do” policy of such apparently staged killings has succeeded in curbing crime.

Kafeel Khan and the CAA protests

If these killings are extrajudicial, Adityanath and his government have also shown themselves adept at using judicial means when required to act against those it perceives to be enemies of the state.

Kafeel Khan, a government doctor from Gorakhpur became the victim of the wrath of the UP administration after 63 children died in a Gorakhpur government hospital in 2017 because of the breakdown of oxygen supply.

Contradicting Khan’s claims of saving lives by investing his personal money to organise oxygen, Adityanath’s government filed criminal charges – including criminal conspiracy and culpable homicide – and accused him of dereliction of duty.

Every time Khan was cleared by inquiry commissions or courts (here and here), fresh charges were brought against him. He was, for instance, arrested on January 29 on the charge of making a speech which allegedly provoked violence at the Aligarh Muslim University while opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2020, and the National Register of Citizens.

When Khan was cleared of making a provocative speech by a court on 12 February, the UP police used the NSA to keep him in prison. After eight months in jail, he was released by an order of the Allahabad High Court, which observed: “We are having no hesitation in concluding that neither detention of Kafeel Khan under the National Security Act, 1980 nor extension of the detention are sustainable in the eye of the law.”

When nationwide protests began against the changes in the citizenship regime from December 2019, the UP administration was the first to suppress the protests using tear-gas, baton-charges and firing, leaving 23 people dead, 21 of these with bullet wounds, most of them Muslim.

As part of a fact-finding team from Karwan E Mohabbat, we heard numerous testimonies of police entering the homes of Muslims, wounding people, even children, destroying property and vandalising mosques.

In early March, banners were erected at key road intersections in Lucknow with photographs, names and addresses of anti CAA/NRC protestors, accusing them of vandalism during the protests.

None of the allegations had been proved in any court of law. Even if they had, there is no provision in law for public shaming of the accused. Yet, the chief minister ordered public humiliation and the district administration complied.

Those whom the UP government sought to name and shame included Congress leader Sadaf Jafar, SR Darapuri, a retired Indian Police Service officer and activist Mohammad Shoaib, individuals with a record of civil-rights work.

On March 9, the Allahabad High Court ordered the UP government to remove the posters and declared the action as “without having the authority of law”. Instead of obeying, the UP government challenged it in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court too held that there was no law to support the actions of the UP government.

The hoardings shaming protestors in Lucknow. Photo credit: Sumit Kumar

Yet, the posters continued to be displayed on the streets of Lucknow and other cities, with the chief minister declaring that “revenge” would be extracted from the protestors. In Lucknow alone, the government issued recovery notices for Rs 1.5 crore from protestors, most of whom were poor, working-class Muslims.

A further blurring of lines

The lines between Adityanath as a vigilante Hindutva militant and the elected leader of the state government blurred even further with a directive on August 28 he called upon the officials of the Home Department to investigate what he describes as love jihad.

Love jihad, along with cow slaughter, terror violence and religious conversions, is among the allegations (here, here and here) that Hindutva ideologues and cadres use against Indian Muslims. The claim is that young Muslim men are financed and trained to entrap Hindu women in romantic relationships, in order to convert them to Islam and increase the Muslim population.

The chief minister had ordered officials to inquire into and stop “love jihad”, said his media adviser Mrityunjay Kumar on August 28, claiming such cases were rising statewide.

This campaign to target and demonise consensual relationships across religion appears to have become unstated state policy, with police officers consenting (here and here) to investigate Hindu-Muslim partners as perpetrators and victims of love jihad. An ordinance to outlaw love jihad is reported to be on the anvil.

In many ways, the Adityanath government has unleashed a model of vindictive, majoritarian and repressive governance that crosses boundaries even earlier BJP regimes have hesitated to violate.

These are signs of the consolidation of a new kind of vigilante governance. Apart from some salutary rulings by the Allahabad High Court (here and here), none of the institutions of democracy have proved effective or even displayed the motivation to halt its juggernaut.

Amitanshu Verma is a researcher with Karwan-E-Mohabbat and Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children.

This article first appeared on Article-14.