It’s been an eventful three and a half years with the
Narendra Modi government and if one thing stands out apart from its
achievements, real and self-proclaimed, it is an increasing disrespect for and
debasing of institutions. When BJP-run states banned cattle slaughter, for
instance, they permitted vigilante groups to enforce the ban in concert with
the police. This is a potentially toxic partnership because vigilantes, even
the most well-meaning, have a tendency to take the law into their hands. How
the police can even pretend to fairness when allied to violence-prone
roughnecks breathing down their necks is hard to imagine. It is perhaps another
way of telling an already pliable force which way it should lean.
It is no coincidence that media reports since the Modi government took office have tracked at least 25 killings by cow vigilantes, and many more incidents of violence related to cow protection. The main targets are Muslims and Dalits, feeding the already strong suspicions about the BJP government’s attitude towards these two communities. As it is, neither Muslims nor Dalits expect justice or even fair treatment from BJP administrations, a fear strengthened by the fact that not one case of intimidation or murder has been resolved so far. Moreover, in these instances the victims seem to be getting the dirty end of the stick, while the suspected culprits are treated with indulgence.
The picture is more chilling in the northern states. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister, for instance, has threatened to kill suspected criminals in encounters. And his publicly expressed opinions about Muslims are an open call to violence. Neither the Constitution nor the courts have a place in his mind, nor the possibility that innocents may be killed. That is what seems to have happened with Sumit Gurjar, 22, in Noida on October 4, according to a Fountain Ink investigation.
It does not stop here, however. In opposition the BJP raised a great and pious hue and cry over its UPA predecessor’s routine use of state agencies like the CBI and tax sleuths to bring reluctant allies to heel, especially in UP. But when T. T. V. Dhinakaran tried to claim the late Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s legacy on behalf of his aunt Sasikala he found himself under siege from by the Income Tax department, in a transparent attempt to force him to quit the scene. The BJP’s plan to use the leaderless, minority government of Edappadi Palaniswami is no secret. Maybe that is why there is no move towards a floor test of its majority because its defeat blows the BJP’s best chance of finding a foothold in Tamil Nadu.
Perhaps its attitude towards rule of law is best encapsulated in the obscene cacophony surrounding the release of Padmavati. Multiple death threats to the performers and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali by numerous groups and at least one senior BJP leader have been met with a stony silence from every BJP government but one. No one has seen the film, no one knows what is objectionable but everyone is sure it is an insult to Kshatriya honour, the house of Mewar and Indian culture in general. In this season of rumour a word of reason from one respected leader might cool tempers down, but all are seized by collective catalepsy. The resulting hysteria has spooked several state governments into postponing Padmavati’s release, perhaps indefinitely. With it goes the notion that the primary function of a state is law and order. It is not even a subject for debate.
Against this background it is no wonder that 470 of the 1,079 judgeships in the country’s high courts lay vacant as of August 1. There is no lack of candidates. The Collegium has sent over 350 names in the last one year. Maybe this is the government’s revenge on the Supreme Court for striking down the judicial appointments Act. That the public in whose name it acts may be affected is irrelevant. Its attitude towards Parliament shows similar indifference. The winter session normally begins in mid-November and lasts four weeks. This time it is December 15-January 5, peak holiday season. It is anybody’s guess how many days it will sit, given holidays and the weekends, but there is precious little chance of substantive debate on matters of public interest. Parliament is the one place where a government can be held to account, even by an enfeebled opposition. Curtailing that space undermines democracy, but that should come as no surprise. Few governments in independent India have shown a taste for accountability but this one is particularly averse to the light of inquiry.