India’s movement against colonialism is unique for being overwhelmingly nonviolent, largely using Mohandas Gandhi’s strategy civil disobedience to resist the British Raj. Since then, India has been through a great churn. But, at least in theory, it seemed to adhere to Gandhi’s formulation. Recent events, though, seem to suggest that this idea is waning.
On Saturday, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh issued a disturbing endorsement of extra-judicial violence. At a rally ahead of municipal elections in the state, Chief Minister Adityanath of the Bharatiya Janata Party saidthat criminals in the state would “either be sent to jail or killed in police encounters”. The next day, the BJP’s chief media coordinator for Haryana was more direct: he called for a beheading. Addressing a cheering crowd, Suraj Pal Amu said that he was willing to award Rs 10 crore to anyone who would cut off the heads of actor Deepika Padukone and Padmavati director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. People from the Rajput caste are angry about a romantic scene in the film featuring the mythical queen Padmavati and the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji – a charge that Bhansali has repeatedly denied.
India is not completely new to political violence. In West Bengal, for example, the Congress from 1972 to 1977 used overwhelming state power to crush various left-wing opponents. Both north and west India have seen frequent pogroms against Muslims and, in one case, Sikhs.
Yet, ruling politicians rarely spoke approvingly of violence. This is crucial in a democracy, given that major political disagreements are to be thrashed out in the ballot box – not with the use of arms. That fact that India’s ruling party is openly threatening violence is a troubling sign for Indian democracy. The BJP’s job as a ruling party is to ensure that Indians are fed, educated and have access to healthcare – not to threaten decapitation or extra-judicial murder by the police.