The order issued by the Allahabad High Court on October 13, after taking suo motu cognisance of the rape of a Dalit girl from Bulgadi village of Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh, primarily referred to the gruesome rape and murder of the 19-year-old but, in its nuances and contextualisation, questioned the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s very approach to governance and its commitment to core democratic values. Taking on frontally every single contentious action of the government and the State police, including the denial of rape and the hurried cremation of the girl’s corpse in the middle of the night on September 30, the court observed that there had been “prima facie an infringement upon the human rights of the victim and her family”. The bench consisting of Justices Pankaj Mithal and Rajan Roy went on to observe that “the guiding principle of governance and administration, after Independence, should be to ‘serve’ and ‘protect’ people and not to ‘rule’ and ‘control’ as was the case prior to Independence”. The bench also pointed out that it was the government’s responsibility to come out with appropriate procedures as guidelines for district officials to deal with such situations.
The bench further said: “India is a country which follows the religion of humanity, where each one of us are supposed to respect each other in life and in death. However, the above facts and circumstances, as of now, ex facie , reveal that the decision to cremate the victim in the night without handing over the body to the family members or their consent was taken jointly by the administration at the local level and was implemented on the orders of the District Magistrate, Hathras.... This action of the State authorities, though in the name of law and order situation, is prima facie an infringement upon the human rights of the victim and her family. The victim was at least entitled to decent cremation in accordance with her religious customs and rituals which essentially are to be performed by her family.... Thus, the expanded fundamental right to life, to live with dignity and to exist with dignity even after death, as well as right to decent burial/cremation appears to have been infringed, hurting the sentiments of not only the family members but of all persons and relatives assembled on the spot.” The court pointed out that this amounted to gross violation of the fundamental and human rights of the deceased as enshrined under Articles 21 and 25 of the Constitution and that those responsible for this should be brought to book and punished appropriately. While making its position clear, the court also referred to the actions of two senior government officials, Prashant Kumar, Additional Director General (Law and Order), and Awanish Kumar Awasthi, Additional Chief Secretary, Home, in the State.
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Meanwhile, reflecting the atmosphere of fear and injustice prevailing in the State, the victim’s elder brother has demanded that the case and the family be shifted to Delhi. According to a report in The Hindu , he said the family wanted the case to be heard in a Delhi court and the government’s help in providing them protection and finding employment in Delhi.
Offence as defence
Analysing the court order, Sudhir Kumar Panwar, academic and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader, said “the import of the direct reference to the non-fulfillment of governmental responsibility and the invocation of the situation in the pre-Independence period was of such proportions that it brought to public memory the core characteristics and the entire dismal track record of the three-and-a-half-year-old Yogi Adityanath regime”.
Speaking to Frontline , Panwar said: “Of course, the honourable judges did not make a direct reference to this track record. But the style and content of governance under this regime is unambiguously marked by gross violations of and indifference to governmental responsibility along with brutal suppression of human and fundamental rights as in the pre-Independence period. Any objective observer or analyst can see visible traits of these in every segment of the political, social and economic life of Uttar Pradesh under the Yogi Adityanath regime. And these have been a constant right from the early stages of this government. In concrete terms, the violations and indifference to governmental responsibility have manifested themselves as stunning reverses in key governance areas such as law and order, agrarian economy, public health, social equity and communal harmony. And every time this misgovernance is exposed with regard to one sector or the other, the Chief Minister and his team of political and bureaucratic associates take recourse to the age-old ‘offence is the best defence’ dictum, inventing fallacious counter-arguments or fabricating enemies. This vile tactic has played out time and again over the last three and a half years, supplemented by an aggressive publicity campaign and largely pliant media.”
Panwar’s point of view has widespread acceptance among social and political observers in Uttar Pradesh. Several of them point out that the “counter-attack” ploy has come into play even in the Hathras case. The entire denial of rape by the authorities was built on this premise. The sequence of events in the attempt to build this case as one of “no rape” was marked by extremely brutal police actions and propagation of abominable and ludicrous conspiracy theories. All these manouevres were in the context of the public outrage that the incident had generated across the country, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. Evidently, almost all sections of society were questioning the government’s capability to maintain law and order.
The fact that the alleged rapists belonged to Yogi Adityanath’s Thakur caste added to the political leadership’s discomfiture, especially because there were allegations from across the State that Thakur dominance had become the order of the day and that even powerful upper castes such as Brahmins faced brutality from the muscle-flexing of the Chief Minister’s community.
It was in this context that the counter-attack began, first by hurriedly cremating the victim’s body, denying her family even the right to conduct the last rites, and then by floating conspiracy theories. The Chief Minister led this assault from the front, speaking of “anarchists” and “conspirators who want to incite caste and communal riots only to bring disrepute to his government”. His political cronies took this campaign forward by spreading stories that the victim’s family got Rs.50 lakh to speak against the police and the government. The police force was also let loose, as has been the practice in the last three and a half years, and it registered a spate of first information reports (FIRs) against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political opponents and social activists who protested against the incident or tried to help the victim’s family. The FIRs filed across the State targeted opposition activists belonging to the S.P., the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Congress and the Bhim Army. The police have invoked laws on sedition, criminal conspiracy, “promoting enmity between groups” and provisions of the Information Technology Act against activists besides imposing Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure that prevents the assembly of more than four people in areas of protests. Such criminalisation of protest and opposition activism by using the police and by spinning counter-narratives has been a regular ploy of the government right through its existence. What Hathras did was to expose it before the world clearly.
Along with such stratagems, the political leadership of the Yogi Adityanath regime has steadfastly promoted the majoritarian Hindutva politics with the intent to cover up its failures. This started from the very first months of the Yogi Adityanath government, in March-April 2017. During the election campaign that year, Yogi Adityanath made a key promise that the government’s very first decision would be to waive farm loans. This was indeed implemented in a hurry after government formation. However, the lack of preparation became evident when hundreds of farmers complained that the waiver they got was ridiculously low. Reportedly, there were farmers who got waivers of Rs.100 or even less. Thus, in the very first months of the government, the farming community got agitated against the government .
In no time, the counter-attack and a narrative based on majoritarian political themes came up across the State with the clear intent of diverting attention from the farmers’ unrest. Several so-called anti-love jehad and “ghar wapsi” campaigns sprang up across the State, triggering communal polarisation in varying degrees. In terms of its detail the two campaigns were different, but at its core, what the BJP and other outfits in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar sought to advance through them was Hindutva assertion.
Love jehad is a term that Sangh Parivar outfits use to depict what they call as the organised movement of some jehadi organisations to “trap Hindu girls in love affairs” and convert them to Islam. The campaign almost always involves physical violence against Muslim youth. “Ghar wapasi”, on the other hand, is celebratory because it is about Hindus who had converted to other religions returning to the “mother religion”. These events are not normally accompanied by violence but are indeed marked by aggressive communal rhetoric against the religious minorities.
Children’s deaths in hospital
The Chief Minister and his associates unleashed this majoritarian agenda through political and organisational practices to take it forward. The serial deaths of approximately 70 children at the Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical College Hospital in Gorakhpur from lack of oxygen in August 2017 is a case in point. The deaths were considered to be a major loss of face for the Chief Minister, since Gorakhpur was his political bastion. However, a few days after the deaths came to light, a conspiracy case was foisted on Dr Kafeel Khan, who had been hailed, even as the tragedy unfolded, by a number of residents as well as on traditional and social media, as someone who sought to mitigate the children’s suffering by taking individual initiatives to procure oxygen. Dr Khan was the superintendent and in-charge of the ward where the deaths took place. His religion was targeted as part of the propaganda, once again diverting attention from the governance failures.
Later years also saw the minorities, especially Muslims, being consistently targeted whenever the government found itself in embarrassing situations. This anti-Muslim campaign turned brutal even against women and children in the last quarter of 2019 when protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act erupted across the State.
The protesters were not only savaged by the police and Hindutva goons but many of them were subjected to a vicious “naming and shaming” campaign by the administration which put up their pictures in public places across the State with announcements that they would be forced to “pay up to the government” for the so-called loss that their agitations had caused to the State exchequer. This style of persecution continues even now.
More recently, when the growing public disapproval of the government’s inadequate handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent migrant crisis became apparent from April through June, Yogi Adityanath and his senior Hindutva associate and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans for a bhumi pujan at Ayodhya for the Ram temple, ostensibly as per the Supreme Court verdict of November 9, 2019. The ceremony of August 5, presided over by Narendra Modi himself, was a jamboree that threw all mandatory COVID-19-related health protocols to the wind. Many of the attendees, including Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, the head of the Sangh Parivar trust that would supposedly oversee the construction of the temple, tested positive for the virus within days of the event. Scores of security officials who were at the event too fell seriously ill. Notwithstanding all these human costs, the public attention was effectively diverted from the governmen’s failures in COVID management.
Yet another ploy employed by the Yogi Adityanath regime to advance its majoritarian agenda is extrajudicial killings and excesses by the security forces. The figures put out by the government itself show that as many as 6,145 operations have been undertaken until early January 2020, killing 119 people who were apparently booked for different crimes (story on page 8). A deliberate machismo image of the Chief Minister is built up around these extrajudicial killings and excesses.
Sangh Parivar insiders are of the view that these excesses are working very well for the Chief Minister personally and the BJP politically. Said a senior RSS activist based in Lucknow: “There is tremendous consolidation of Hindutva forces and supporters on the ground on account of these killings. Events such as the bhumi pujan take it further. All this is bolstering the Chief Minister’s image too and he is already being talked about within the Sangh Parivar as the best possible replacement to Modi.”
In spite of all this chest thumping, two developments in October have turned out to be the biggest challenge so far to Yogi Adityanath’s leadership. One of them is the agitation of farmers against the three contentious farm laws passed by the Union government. The second is the Hathras rape case. While the farmers’ agitation has highlighted the plight of the agrarian communities in Uttar Pradesh thanks to the mismanagement of the agrarian crisis by both the Modi-led Union government and the Yogi Adityanath government, the Hathras case has brought into sharp focus the crumbling law and order machinery in the State, marked by caste-based muscle flexing and violence, including serial rapes. Interventions such as the ones made by the High court too have added to Yogi Adityanath’s discomfort.
There are clear signals that the Chief Minister and his associates are trying to brazen it out as they have done successfully in the past. Yet, there are murmurs within the BJP and some sections of the National Democratic Alliance that if the law and order situation continues to deteriorate and the farmers’ agitation gets more virulent, Yogi Adityanath and his style of functioning could well turn out to be the proverbial “albatross around the BJP’s neck”. This is especially so because the “ascetic leader” has never shown any skills in adapting himself to new situations and has always sought to bulldoze his way through criminal gangsterism and high-handedness.