May 16, 2020
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The 10 PM Soliloquies

At political fairgrounds, on social media or TV, vigilantism rules

The 10 PM Soliloquies
Illustration by Sorit
The 10 PM Soliloquies

What is common between Ramdev, Anna Hazare, cyber warriors who attack any opinion different from theirs, retired Foreign Service officers and generals fulminating on security issues on television and the TV anchors who egg them on on behalf of the “nation”? Well, they are all part of the new breed of political vigilantes, a politically aggressive class which seeks to push the Indian state and society in a direction of their choice—some ostensibly towards greater accountability and transparency and others towards being a hard state. Some do it in the name of democracy, others claim to be defending the security and integrity of the nation.

They speak of democracy but in effect show nothing but disdain for the ‘right to dissent’—emphasising the flaws of their opponents to the extent of delegitimising them. Here too there can be distinctions—Ramdev and Anna are political vigilantes but someone like Arvind Kejriwal is perhaps not entirely so. After all, he was open to negotiations even during the Lokpal Bill agitation and has now signed on to reformism by taking the political plunge. For vigilantes, their own interests are supreme and they do not feel the need to take the interests of others on board even while claiming to speak for them.

The two most active sites for vigilante politics in India are television and the social media. They intervene with relentless pressure even before a political debate can take shape and in the event end up hijacking it. However, vigilante politics can unfold as easily at Jantar Mantar, India Gate, the Ramlila Ground in Delhi or in any other public space, including village panchayats. What defines this vigilantism is not the sites where it appears but the way in which it puts forward its interests and values as non-negotiable. Thus Narendra Modi’s leadership is non-negotiable for his army of both fake and genuine followers in the social media and they will breach all norms to attack those who question him. Similarly, young women exercising their choice in a marriage is a no-no for caste panchayats in parts of north India, especially if it involves inter-caste (or intra-gotra) alliances. For others, Kashmir is an internal matter of India. The only negotiation possible with Pakistan is for the return of the area under its control, including Gilgit and Baltistan. Yet others urge that both Pakistan and China be given a bloody nose for “incursions” into Indian territory.

While vigilantes usually prefer to remain anonymous or to identify themselves only after they have ‘struck’ on a particular issue, what is curious is that in India they do not seek anonymity, especially where their ‘strong’ views provide them a halo of nationalism. Most vigilante commentators do not even look for anonymity on the social media, usually posting real names and photographs.

The methods they choose—frightening the political class with large gathering of crowds (Ramdev’s so-called yoga camp at the Ramlila grounds), insulting those who are inimical to their interests (Kiran Bedi talking about politicians during Anna’s agitation), shouting down or attacking people who have a different point of view (attacks on Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan for their views on Kashmir or abusing people who criticise Modi), blackmailing the regime of the day (Ramdev’s threats and Anna Hazare’s interminable fasts), or fomenting communal riots to control the beh­aviour of certain communities (eg the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Gujarat riots of 2002, or more recently, the Muzaffarnagar riots). All these events do not just represent a point of view, they aim to push politics in certain directions.

It is clear that vigilante politics had its precursor in movements like Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena and its latter day spin-off, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, both of which straddle the legislative world also. There were also regional manifestations, like the Sri Rama Sene in Karnataka. What is new is that vigilante politics has acquired a pan-Indian and a pan-class dimension. And with it has come a certain degree of respectability.

What seems to have made this possible is the technological revolution. Is it no more than the ease of communicating ideas through the internet and Twitter? No, because at the heart of vigilante politics is the non-acceptance of people with different interests and opinions as political equals—the basic principle on which democracy rests. Thus vigilante politics can be as prevalent among the educated urban middle classes as among illiterate caste leaders or heads of patriarchal communities. Vigilante politics arises from the privileged position each of them enjoys and the desire to perpetuate it by trying to impose their values on everybody else.

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